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Disturbing New Information on MSM and HIV

By Gary Bell

October 21, 2010

One of the most frustrating aspects of working in HIV is addressing the many myths (as well as conspiracy theories) surrounding it-the most persistent of which is that AIDS is a "gay disease." Clearly this myth started early in the history of HIV in the U.S., yet has persisted despite clear evidence of how HIV is transmitted and the growing diversity of those whom become infected. Moreover, it has been convenient for many to affix the label of "gay" to anyone who has had sex with the same gender. However, a startling new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) may add additional fuel to that myth. A CDC study conducted in 21 cities tested over 8,000 gay and bisexual men participating in the 2008 National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System.

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The study found that almost one in five men having sex with men (MSM) was infected with HIV and that almost half of them did not know it. Black MSM were infected at a rate of 28%, as compared to 18% for Latino men and 16% for Caucasian MSM. Black MSM were even less likely to know their status than other races (59% were unaware) with young black MSM, a shocking 71% of which were unaware of their status. There was also a high co-morbidity with HIV status and socioeconomic variables-with HIV + status increasing as education and income decreased.

Studies such as these point to the glaring need for new creative strategies, not to mention social marketing approaches, to attract more and younger MSM to get tested. Moreover, despite all of the hoopla about '"men on the down low" as the culprit for rising infection rates with women, we cannot overlook the fact that many of the men in this study were bisexual and therefore, may have female partners. Previous studies have shown us that when someone knows their HIV status they are more likely to practice safer sex. Hopefully a renewed focus on HIV prevention targeting MSM may lead to a sorely need national dialogue revealing the diversity and complexity of the topic. Perhaps that discussion will help dispel the myth.

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This year marks Bell's 14th as the executive director of the Philadelphia-based BEBASHI (Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health), founded in 1985 as the nation's first AIDS organization serving African Americans with HIV. Bell has been widely praised, not only for increasing funding and accountability at a time when HIV donations have plummeted, but also for launching such innovative programs as a women's initiative, prison-discharge planning, and, most recently, a diabetes intervention.


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