Nearly 2 decades ago, I was a pediatric infectious diseases fellow fielding a call from a community pediatrician seeking advice on patient management. The patient in question was a 15-year-old male with fever, rash, and cervical adenopathy – a good clinical story for Epstein-Barr virus infection. A heterophile antibody test was negative, however, as were EBV titers.
We talked for a couple of minutes about the vagaries of EBV testing, as well as other organisms that could cause a mononucleosis-like illness. “Cytomegalovirus is a possibility, along with toxoplasmosis,” I told him. “I’d also test for HIV.”
There was a moment of silence and little throat-clearing. “I don’t think we need to that,” he finally responded. “I’ve known this boy since he was a baby, and I’m sure HIV’s not an issue. He’s not that kind of kid.”
Bear in mind that we lived in a Midwestern city with low rates of HIV, and I suspect this seasoned pediatrician had never seen a case. I argued (as only an impassioned trainee can) that every kid is the kind that could be at risk for HIV, and testing was ultimately done (and was negative).
A lot has changed in the intervening years. HIV infection, at least in adolescents and adults, can be controlled with a single pill taken once a day. Children infected perinatally can grow up and have (uninfected) children of their own. We have reasonably effective pre- and postexposure prophylaxis.
One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the reluctance of some of us to test our patients for HIV. So what’s up with that?
It’s not because the virus has gone away. On Oct. 14, 2016, amid little fanfare, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released theA total of 35,606 cases of HIV infection were diagnosed in the United States and reported to the CDC, and 7,723 were in individuals aged 15-24 years.
It is possible that the number of cases in adolescents is even higher. The CDC estimatesdon’t know that they are infected, likely because they’ve never been tested. According to the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), only 10% of United States high school students had ever been tested for HIV, and the number of teens tested has been dropping over time. In 2013, for example, the prevalence of having ever been tested for HIV was 13%.
It’s not because today’s teenagers lack risk factors, including sexual activity and drug use. Just over 30% of the U.S. students surveyed for the YRBS reported sexual intercourse with at least one person in the preceding 3 months, and more than 11% had had four or more lifetime partners. Among sexually active teenagers in the United States, only 57% reported that they or their partner used a condom during last sexual intercourse. Overall, 2% of those surveyed admitted a history of injecting an illegal drug.
It’s not because public health experts haven’t deemed testing a priority. The CDC recommends that everyone aged 13-64 years should get tested at least once. Annual testing is recommended for some individuals, including sexually active gay and bisexual males, those who have had more than one sexual partner since their last HIV test, and those who have another sexually transmitted disease. A 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement affirms the need for routine testing, calling for all adolescents living in geographic areas with an HIV prevalence greater than 0.1% to be offered routine HIV screening at least once by age 16-18 years. In communities with a lower prevalence, the AAP recommends routine HIV testing for sexually active adolescents as well as those with other risk factors, including substance use. Annual HIV testing is recommended for high-risk teenagers, and whenever testing for other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is performed.
It’s probably not that most teenagers are being offered HIV tests and they’re declining. In 2008, the emergency department at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., implemented a protocol for routine, opt-out HIV screening for medically stable patients aged 13-18 years (). Of the 2,002 patients approached for screening over an approximately 7-month period, only 267 (13%) opted out and of those, 73 had already been tested.
Yet many of us still are not testing. More recently, investigators in Philadelphia performed a retrospective, cross-sectional study of 1,000 randomly selected 13- to 19-year-old patients attending routine well visits conducted at 29 pediatric primary care practices to assess clinician documentation of sexual history and screening for STIs and HIV (). Only 212 visits (21.2%) had a documented sexual history, and only 16 patients were tested for HIV (1.6%). HIV testing was more likely to be performed on older adolescents, those of non-Hispanic black race/ethnicity, and those with nonprivate insurance. Study authors called the results “concerning” and advocated for standardized protocols, documentation templates, and electronic decision support to facilitate improved sexual health assessments and screening.
I suspect we all can do better. I’m not a primary care provider, but I do see adolescents with a variety of complaints. I’m pretty diligent about testing teenagers admitted with unexplained fever, vague constitutional symptoms, and those with symptoms that suggest another STI. I’m less effective at discussing HIV testing with those being treated for a postop wound infection, or a routine community-acquired pneumonia.
December is a good time to reflect on practice and make resolutions for the new year. I resolve to talk to more of my adolescent patients about HIV. Who’s with me?
Dr. Bryant is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville, Ky., and Kosair Children’s Hospital, also in Louisville. Email her at.