April 22, 2011
The Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD) is boosting HIV prevention outreach through support of "ballrooms," or underground dance parties for young, black or Hispanic men who have sex with men (MSM).
In November, some 400 MSM and transgender persons of color attended a ball at the Sheraton Inner Harbor hotel. Free condoms were available, as well as information about dental services, food stamps, and housing. Meanwhile, emcees reminded partygoers of the free, confidential HIV testing that was being offered. The $6,000 event, paid for with federal testing funds, screened at least 100 attendees. Of these, about 10 percent were HIV-positive, said BCHD spokesperson Brian Schleter. Another event is planned for later this year.
The effort reflects a push by CDC to focus on high-risk populations, said Dr. Renata Arrington Sanders, a Johns Hopkins researcher specializing in HIV testing and prevention strategies targeting young MSM. "There is a refocus," she said. "Not necessarily taking prevention away from any particular group, but making sure our efforts are being focused in the right place."
In Baltimore, the need is great: A 2008 Johns Hopkins study found 45 percent in a sample of black MSM were HIV-positive. "It's a public health emergency," said Carl Latkin, a Hopkins epidemiologist who works in HIV prevention. In the city, "if you're an African-American man and having a same-sex partner, there's a good chance, whoever they are, they're going to be infected."
Ballroom participants are typically young, poor, and have been rejected by their families for being gay or transgender. That "cluster of factors" makes outreach to this community a smart strategy, said Susan Sherman, another Hopkins epidemiologist. "There's a big bang for your buck when you target segments of the population that particularly have high rates of disease."