Students perceive low risk for HIV
Know Your Status—a student organization at Duke that conducts free, rapid HIV tests—has found disparities between students’ perceived risk of acquiring HIV and their actual, objective risk.
In an unpublished, three-year study conducted by KYS on 1,000 Duke students tested for HIV, researchers found that 55.4 percent of students exhibit “risky behavior.” Risky behavior is defined as students who reported having unprotected sex or sharing needles, had two or more sexual partners in the past year or were men having sex with men.
This statistic draws concern because 90.7 percent of these students viewed themselves as having a “nonexistent” or “very low” risk for acquiring HIV, said Dr. Mehri McKellar, an author of the study and principle investigator for KYS .
“The big issue is this mismatch,” McKellar said. “Once [students] leave Duke, they could potentially move into areas where there are higher prevalency rates [of HIV], and if they engage in these [risky] behaviors, that is obviously an issue.”
Since the organization was established in 2005, KYS has only diagnosed one person with HIV at Duke, McKellar said. Although this indicates a low rate of HIV on campus, KYS’ presence is still necessary but noted that the program should be channeled in a different direction.
“Duke should have more of a risk-based program,” she said. “If you look at the [Centers’ for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines on who should have a routine screening program for HIV, [those that] are under 0.1 percent prevalence can probably be tested based on risk.”
HIV is often found in low-income communities, McKellar said. The low prevalence of HIV at Duke is due to the fact that most students do not come from less privileged areas.
Duke is also a private community, which contributes to the low rates of HIV, said Dr. Charles Hicks, associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and co-author in the KYS study.
Hicks noted that at Durham Technical Community College, four out of the 408 people tested were diagnosed with HIV. The higher HIV rate at DTCC is because the school is a commuter college and the overall student population is older.
“The more people you’ve had sex with, the more opportunities you’ve had to have sex with someone that’s HIV positive,” Hick said. “[The students at DTCC] are 5 years older ... and have interactions with people in different environments. It seems logical to me that there would have been additional opportunities to become HIV positive.”
About 55 percent of Duke students reported using a condom during their last sexual encounter, which is a positive take-away from the study, Hick said.
“Having sex is not something that always lends itself to reasoned thoughts—you get yourself into a circumstance, passions arise and you end up doing things and later think ‘oh my gosh, what was I thinking,’” he added. “If 55 percent of people say they are using condoms pretty consistently, that’s pretty good. I tend to look at that like a glass half-full rather than a glass half-empty.”
Despite the low HIV rate at Duke, it is important to reduce the risk of transmission, said senior Ijeoma Agu, the student director of KYS.
“A lot of people dismiss [HIV] because of the [low] prevalence,” Agu said. “They think prevalence is more important than risk, but once you have it, there is no going back.”