In 2016, teens and young adults made up 21 percent of all new HIV diagnoses in the U.S., and Aids Fund Philly reports that the rate of diagnosis in Philadelphia is five times greater than the national average.
A few local organizations are working hard to ensure Philly youth know their HIV status.
Coinciding with AIDS Education Month, health services nonprofit Philadelphia FIGHT is running its sixth annual Hip Hop for Philly youth initiative to encourage those between the ages of 13 and 24 to get tested for HIV. The program consists of free testing events and education sessions at parks, recreation centers and schools around the city.
It ends on Tuesday — one day before National HIV Testing Day — with a free concert headlined by popular rapper A Boogie Wit da Hoodie at the Trocadero Theater.
To get concert tickets, teens and young adults must take a free rapid HIV test or participate in an education session. Rapid HIV tests let people know their status in a matter of minutes, cutting out long wait periods that might discourage youth from getting tested.
“We wanted to create a mechanism that’s fun and creative to get those in that age group knowing the risk factors and knowing the ways they can get tested,” said Evon Burton, marketing and outreach supervisor at FIGHT.
The initiative is in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and more than 15 other community organizations, including Congreso and Action Wellness.
The education sessions are new to the Hip Hop for Philly programming this year. FIGHT added the sessions to make sure youth were learning why they should regularly get tested for HIV.
“It’s very easy to stick out your hand, get a prick and get your result, but if you don’t know why that result is important then there’s no real point,” Burton said.
The event’s Education Committee developed youth-specific presentations explaining how hip hop has often been used to spread messages about sex and how it can be used to spread positive ones. The presentations include examples such as R&B trio TLC, who wore condoms on their clothing to encourage talking about sex and wrote the 1995 song “Waterfalls” partially about contracting HIV.
“There are creative ways to talk about sex and to talk about health that will also keep people interested and allow them to get the important messaging,” said Kiara Washington, the Youth TEACH Education coordinator at FIGHT; Washington is also on the Hip Hop for Philly education committee.
Hip Hop for Philly is FIGHT’s way of connecting with the younger demographic and encouraging them to take charge of their health. Washington said stigma, fear and an irrational belief they’ll never come into contact with HIV or other STIs holds youth back from getting tested. She added school health education programs sometimes teach information in a scary way that discourages kids from making healthy decisions.
“A lot of schools don’t have comprehensive programs where kids can come and sit in a classroom setting and really learn about different aspects of health education,” Washington said. “They normally get basic information like what an STI is and how you may come into contact with it, but there’s not a lot of detail for the youth to understand what that really means to them.”
She added her favorite part of the education sessions is seeing how many young people are genuinely interested in receiving accurate sexual health information.
“They ask those questions that they may not be able to ask to their parents or their teachers,” Washington said. “It’s definitely been awesome to see them open up a bit and ask questions they’ve been wanting to ask and come to a point where they feel comfortable getting and receiving the information.”
While HIV affects everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, some subsets of the LGBTQ population are disproportionately affected. Of the new HIV diagnoses reported by the CDC in 2016, 81 percentoccurred among young gay and bisexual men, particularly of African American and Hispanic heritage.
And while advancements in HIV tests and anti-HIV medications like PrEP are helping prevent and treat HIV, one in six gay and bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime if current diagnosis rates continue. In 2013, gay and bisexual men composed two percent of the U.S. population but accounted for 55 percent of all people living with HIV in the country.
In addition to barriers like stigma and fear, members of the LGBTQ community face additional roadblocks to getting tested, including negative ideas about the LGBTQ community, Washington said.
“Not every place they go to are welcoming and are understanding of the needs they have,” she added. “There’s so much misinformation and stigma around the [LGBTQ] community, it keeps people from wanting to go and get tested and check up on their health for fear of what someone may say … especially young people.”
As part of Hip Hop for Philly programming, FIGHT held education sessions at the LGBTQ health and wellness center Mazzoni Center and LGBTQ homeless shelter Home for Hope. It also held testing and education sessions at Philly Pride earlier this month.
The initiative visited other youth locations like Belmont Charter School,TECH Freire Charter High School and Brightwood Career Institute. Hip Hop for Philly reaches about 2,000 Philadelphia youth every year.
“At the end, to see them show up at the concert is awesome,” Washington said. “Although they have this reward at the end, we still know that they’ve left a session — whether it’s an education session or a testing session — with some information they didn’t have before that they can now take with them.”