Nursing Prof. Robert Stephenson on Wednesday led a session on navigating conversations about HIV status.

The session, “HIV & Me,” was part of this week’s Sexpertise series and aimed to help students utilize campus resources and how to get involved in advocacy groups.

HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, can lead to the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. AIDS patients have a compromised immune system, making them more susceptible to infections and diseases that people with working immune systems can usually fight off.

In the United States alone, more than 1.2 million people are infected with HIV, and one out of eight people are unaware that they are infected, according to the Center for Disease Control. HIV spreads through blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, rectal fluids, vaginal fluids and breast milk. In the United States, HIV is spread mainly by having unprotected sex with someone who is HIV-positive or sharing needles, syringes or other equipment that are used to inject drugs with someone who has HIV, according to the CDC.

HIV is a bigger problem in youth — people aged from 13 to 24 — in the United States, with  26 percent  of new infections in this age group in 2010. Over half of the people in this age bracket with HIV do not know that they are infected.

During his talk, Stephenson pointed out that young people — including college students — might not necessarily have HIV prevention or testing on the top of their priority list since there are other aspects in their lives to keep them busy. Though the University Health Service currently offers free confidential HIV tests for University of Michigan students — the test costs $20 for others — the students may not utilize the resource.

“Is (HIV prevention or testing) a priority for young people?” Stephenson asked. “What about other priorities — school, getting good grades and planning what to eat?”

Stephenson said addressing some of those other priorities might encourage young people to prioritize HIV prevention or testing, an approach called the “life skills approach.” The approach focuses on developing and honing various practical skills, such as decision-making, problem-solving and critical thinking, in young people to then educate them about issues such as HIV.  

Stephenson said the approach may help “sort out” other problems the young people have so they can focus on dealing with sexuality issues, such as HIV testing and relationships.

“If you sort your life out, you are more likely to get HIV testing,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson also discussed iCON, a website for youth in the LGBTQ community to find resources in Southeast Michigan about various issues related to their sexuality, such as HIV prevention and testing, legal counsel and coming out to family and friends. Stephenson is the co-director of the Center for Sexuality and Health Disparities, the organization that developed iCON. iCON is tailored for the user’s unique status on gender, sexual orientation and HIV status.  

Brentney Wilson, an Eastern Michigan University student who attended the session, said she found iCON “fascinating” and liked how research on other topics that are not immediately related to HIV research were used to address the HIV issue in young people.

“How they are using other research to segue into research on HIV — I thought that was clever,” Wilson said. “HIV is a very touchy subject, so it can be very hard to do talk about HIV with people.”

Sexpertise Director Laura McAndrew said an open, honest discussion of sexuality is important because sexuality can greatly influence a person’s happiness and wellness as it is not just about sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.

“Sexual health is part of one’s overall health,” McAndrew said. “Sexual health includes having a positive relationship with your sexuality, feeling positive about your sexual orientation and having a pleasurable sexual interaction.”


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