Why aren’t younger gay guys even getting tested?

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The proverbial foibles of youth can’t wave off a new study that finds, yet again, that HIV prevention messages fall short of reaching gay teens and young men, the vast majority of whom have never once tested for the virus.

Study after study shows gay guys under 25 are not hearing, or worse not heeding, campaigns to protect their sexual health. As they discover and explore their sexuality, they are statistically at the highest risk for HIV of anyone in the U.S. While researchers work on innovative ways to reach younger guys, even already poz younger guys are less likely to have the virus in check when they get it, and more likely to go bareback.

Now new work out of Northwestern University tries to break down barriers that put gay male teens at highest risk for HIV. It starts at testing, researchers say.

Young men who have sex with men have the highest risk for HIV infection, but only one in five has ever been tested for HIV, a much lower rate than testing for non-adolescents, reports a new national Northwestern Medicine study conducted in partnership with the Center for Innovative Public Health Research.

The greatest barriers to these teenage males getting tested are not knowing where to go to get an HIV test, worries about being recognized at a testing site and — to a lesser degree — thinking they are invincible and won’t get infected.

“Understanding the barriers to testing provides critical information for intervening, so we can help young men get tested,” said study first author Gregory Phillips II, a research assistant professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an investigator for the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program at Feinberg.

“Rates of new HIV infections continue to increase among young gay and bisexual men,” said Brian Mustanski, principal investigator of the study, an associate professor of medical social sciences at Feinberg and director of IMPACT. “Testing is critical because it can help those who are positive receive lifesaving medical care. Effective treatment can also help prevent them from transmitting the virus to others.”

The study recruited 302 of subjects via Facebook and cites some startling statistics, plus a strange juxtaposition of both a sense of fear about HIV and a sense of invincibility in life.

Only 30% of sexually active participants had ever been tested for HIV [far fewer with any regularity], and nearly half of them did not know where they could go to get tested for HIV (42.9%).

Based on exploratory factor analysis, nine questions assessing potential barriers to HIV testing factored into three subscales: external factors, fear, and feelings of invincibility.

Younger gay men have trouble identifying resources? Science is on it. Northwestern is looking at automatic texts with info on prevention and testing, there’s a social networking project undreway at UT HealthScience in Houston, and Emory University in Atlanta wants you to know that there’s an app for that.

[Northwestern University News | Journal of Adolescent Health | Science Direct]

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