09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Fatalistic Teens Increase Risk of HIV Infection

Originally published on, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe. This article was produced in collaboration with Beyond the Odds, a Web site of personal stories and perspectives from young people living with HIV and AIDS.

By: Ankitha Bharadwaj

John was the kind of teenager who'd drive 100 miles per hour without a seat belt and jump into a pool from the second story of a building. What his parents said no to, he'd do ten times harder.

"I didn't think I'd live past 21," says John, who asked us not to use his real name. "I had alcohol poisoning at 15, I was in a coma one stage away from death."

Adults always say people my age think we're immortal, and that's why we take crazy risks. But for John, who's now 25, it was the opposite.

"People here are so used to seeing people their own age die, that life isn't as valuable a thing as it should be, especially here in Oakland [California]," John says. "They're numb, there's no emotion there anymore because it's so common."

There's some new research that backs up John's point. A study this summer from the University of Minnesota reports 1 in 7 teenagers in the U.S. thinks he or she only has a 50-50 shot of making it past 35. That alone may not be so surprising. But what stands out in the research are the consequences of low life-expectancy.

"We also found that those who predicted in the first interview that they would die earlier, were more likely in the later years to begin engaging in these risky behaviors," says Dr. Iris Borowsky, the study's lead author.

Youth who thought they'd die young were seven times more likely than their more hopeful counterparts to contract HIV/AIDS. Dr. Borowsky says pediatricians like her should screen their patients about how they view their futures.

"If I find that I have a patient who does not see a long road of opportunity ahead of them, this may be an indicator of multiple issues that deserve attention and also an opportunity to intervene to prevent risky behaviors including behaviors that are associated with HIV/AIDS enough to improve health outcomes," Borowsky says.

Kevin Bynes runs youth services at the Aids Project East Bay in Oakland, California, and he sees risky behavior first hand -- and its effects.

"We talk about violence, substance abuse, a variety of poverty issues, but we rarely talk about HIV as one of those things," says Bynes. "And it's a growing problem in this area and in the Bay Area."

The rate of new HIV infections among teens is a problem nation-wide, according to a study released this summer by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of AIDS diagnoses for males age 15 to19 has doubled in the past ten years, and as of 2006 about 22,000 youth are living with AIDS.

Last December, after 10 years of reckless behavior, John became part of the statistic.

"I had been with somebody who had contracted an STD," John recalls. "And as a precaution I went into a clinic to get tested just to make sure I was OK. When I was there I was offered an HIV test separately from all the STD tests I had taken. It seems like all the STD things came back negative, but the HIV test came back as positive."

John says he's still in shock from the diagnosis. The timing of it all made it extra painful, since he says he'd just stopped running wild when he got the bad news. Researchers are hoping their findings will lead to earlier intervention with young people like John whose fatalistic views put them at risk. So that next trip to the doctor's office results in a discussion about future goals rather than an HIV diagnosis.

This story comes to you from Public Radio Makers Quest 2.0, an initiative of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated. This project is made possible with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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