Vol. 17, No. 13 June 17 - 30, 2004



     
 

Monte Program's Message to Youth: Get Tested!
Bronx Week Focus on AIDS Tests for Teens

By MIRANDA KAPLAN

Open a brochure distributed by the Adolescent AIDS Program (AAP) at Montefiore and you'll find colorful graphics, smiling teenagers, and slang you might hear on the street. But amidst the smooth appeal, you'll also find some tough statistics -- for example, that AIDS is the leading cause of death among African-Americans between the ages of 15 and 24. Or that, of 12 million Americans with STDs, about two-thirds of them are under 25. 

Founded in 1987, the AAP, a national pioneer in AIDS treatment for adolescents, isn't trying to hide any of this with the catchy language and photos. It's just that it has found that with a hipper approach, it's easier to alert Bronx youth to the fact that, despite significant advances in treatment of the disease, HIV/AIDS is still around and that many of them are at risk.

"Treatment has lulled people into thinking AIDS is no longer a problem," says Donna Futterman, MD, director of the AAP and an internationally recognized expert in the field of AIDS treatment. 

For more than a decade, the number of new HIV infections in the U.S. each year has remained more or less constant at 40,000. Half of those new infections occur in 13- to 24-year-olds. To Futterman and her staff, that's a sign that many sexually active young people remain uninformed about disease prevention, or are too anxious to get tested. And adults' denial of the problem and reluctance to address adolescent sexuality don't help. 

To clear those obstacles, the AAP is bringing information, free testing (no parental 
consent required), and an energetic staff to a number of convenient sites in the Bronx for its annual Get Tested! Week, during Bronx Week, from June 22 through June 28. 

Though originally a citywide event, Get Tested! Week has recently begun to concentrate its efforts on the Bronx, which is at high risk for infection. Poorer areas in the Bronx are more vulnerable to the disease because they usually lack the educational and medical resources necessary to stave off its spread. "HIV, in almost every society, is linked to poverty," Futterman explains. "The Bronx has more people [with HIV] than San Francisco."

This year's Get Tested! Week will be strengthened through AAP's partnership with Bronx AIDS Services and two other Montefiore programs. The collaboration means greater testing flexibility -- adults can be tested as well as adolescents. 

But young people are, and always have been, the target audience, which is why AAP's peer educator program, founded three years ago, is integral to the success of Get Tested! Week and other events. Bright, outgoing youths who are passionate about spreading AIDS awareness throughout their community undergo a rigorous 10-week training session before hitting health fairs, schools and the streets.

Embodied in the slogan "Gettin' Busy? Get Tested," woven into the peer educator 
program, are a language and a sympathetic attitude that are friendly to adolescents. According to Futterman, "The basis of it was that young people really listen to their 
peers."

Jessica Rivera, 24, a peer educator from the south Bronx, will go so far as to get tested herself if it will make other kids more comfortable. Though adults and teens alike resist what they see as judgment of their sexual behavior, Rivera insists that everyone needs the knowledge she can provide. "You need to take care of your health," she says firmly. "If you're not taking care of yourself, nobody is ...We could paint a pretty picture or we could give it to you as real as it can get."

Rivera and Futterman agree that, although outreach work is never easy, youth are much more receptive to each other than to adults. And Bronx adults have welcomed the presence of these young helping hands in the battle against AIDS.

Futterman reports seeing a "great deal of gratitude" from Bronx parents, who understand the need that the AAP fills and appreciate the lengths to which it goes -- whether that's giving away movie tickets with HIV tests or inviting a former Miss Universe to Get Tested! Week. 

"Our positive response is because we really go the extra mile," Futterman says.

Ed. note: For more information about the Adolescent AIDS Program at Montefiore, visit www.gettinbusy.org. For testing sites during Get Tested! Week 2004, call (718) 881-TEST.


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