In honor of AIDSWatch 2016 taking place this week in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth Taylor's granddaughter Laela Wilding and great-grandson Finn McMurray have shared their thoughts on HIV prevention. AIDSWatch is the largest constituent-based HIV advocacy event in the U.S., bringing hundreds of HIV advocates to Washington, D.C. from across the country to educate Congress about the policies and resources needed to end the HIV epidemic.
How can we expect to see an end to the HIV and AIDS epidemic our grandmother so fiercely fought if we are not educating our children and providing them with the knowledge they need to protect themselves from HIV?
Since the mid-80s when the horrible specter of AIDS infiltrated our lives, much progress has been made. The founder of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, my grandmother, was a leader at the forefront of the fight against this disease. She used her massive platform and raised her voice for those who did not have one. She fought, and fought hard, to reduce stigma and to advance medical care for those living with HIV. I will always be proud of the impact she has made, and I, along with many family members, have made a promise to help continue her work as an HIV and AIDS advocate.
Thirty-some years into the epidemic, life-saving drugs have been developed and are available for people living with HIV. AIDS used to be called a "death sentence," now we are concerned with helping the aging HIV+ population. Things have improved so much that people in their 30s and younger don't seem to think about HIV or AIDS at all.
And that is a problem.
1 out of 5 new HIV infections occurs in young people under the age of 25. This age group is seeing an increase in new infections, likely because an estimated 50% of young people that have contracted HIV are unaware of their status, do not receive treatment and therefore unknowingly pass it on. There are some very simple steps we need to take to stem the tide of increasing numbers of new infections among our young people. Put simply: know the facts about HIV and other STIs, use a condom, and get tested regularly.
Many teens do not have a clear understanding of the risks of their sexual behavior, which is majorly due to lack of access to comprehensive sexual health education. Unfortunately, only 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education. Thankfully, President Obama has recently eliminated a $10 million annual grant from the 2017 budget towards funding abstinence-only sexual education classes in public schools. It's about time - seeing that this method has been a proven failure.
The United States has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world with more than 750,000 women aged 15-19 becoming pregnant annually. (1) Additionally, people aged 15-25 contract about half of the 19 million STIs annually (2). Less than 25% of high school students who've had sex have been tested for HIV despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend routine HIV testing once a year at a minimum.
Congress has the opportunity to remedy this problem by eliminating federal funding for abstinence-only sex education and instead co-sponsor the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act (REHYA). The correlation between comprehensive sex education is definitively one of the best tools we have to fight the spread of HIV. This would include medically accurate information that addresses the physical and emotional needs of young people with an emphasis on inclusion and accurate health information.
As a parent, I believe that thorough, medically accurate, comprehensive sexual education should be taught in all schools, with an emphasis on abstinence. After all, abstinence is the only 100% reliable form of STI and birth control. In no way does it make sense to me, the mother of two kids, to deny our young people access to potentially life-saving information. I am convinced that the ideals of all parents can be included in REHYA, particularly with the provisions to opt out of the program. That way, most of our young people will be informed on how to have safe sex when the time is right for them. For those parents that truly wish to shield their children from that information, they may do so.
I am excited to return to AIDSWatch with ETAF this year, and that my teenage son, Finn, will be joining us to raise his concerns about sexual education in our schools. I am proud that he is coming to Capital Hill to share the perspective of our young people.
The state of sexual health education from our youth
I am a seventeen-year-old, currently in eleventh grade at a public high school. Along with my family, I have become involved with my grandmother's Foundation, The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, as well as HIV and AIDS organizations in our home town of Portland, Oregon. As a young person facing the issues of HIV, I believe that education and prevention are of the upmost concern for reducing stigma and increasing awareness.
Even in my high school that participates in comprehensive sex education, there is a lack of information and conversation about HIV. Likewise, mainstream media rarely addresses any issues relating to HIV, denying its relevance in our society and globally; when it is discussed, the language used is often archaic and perpetuates stigma. These unfortunate attitudes reinforce the idea that HIV is a topic that we should keep quiet. This teaches young people that openly discussing HIV is not acceptable in our society, creating an influx of stigma and denial, which in turn creates a lack of awareness of the disease and a lack of willingness to take critical measures that could protect one from contracting and spreading the virus. Providing an inclusive and respectful environment to talk about sexual health allows young people to become sufficiently informed with medically accurate information, which will aid us in making informed decisions to both protect ourselves and others. This can be achieved through the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, which will be one of the most significant topics we will be pushing for at AIDSWatch this year.
We need to move away from stigma, shame and ignorance and work toward acceptance, knowledge and empowerment in comprehensive sexual health education, including information about HIV and legitimizing our LGBTQ communities.
About the guest bloggers:
Laela Wilding is a Graphic Designer and serves as an Ambassador to The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation and Board Member of Our House. Finn McMurray is a student and Laela's son.
(1) . Lorrie Gavin, et al., "Sexual and Reproductive Health of Persons Aged 10-24 Years - United States, 2002-2007," Surveillance Summaries, vol. 58, number SS-6 (Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 July 2009).)
(2) "STDs in Adolescents and Young Adults," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed 15 March 2010,