Vienna, Austria — In mid June the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released troubling new data. Researchers reported that the HIV/AIDS caseload in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is soaring — especially among men who have sex with other men, called MSM in public health jargon. Since 2000, the CDC has reported an "alarming" 160 percent increase in the number of new HIV infections among younger Black gay and bisexual men.
"This is a very serious public health threat," says Mike Gifford, chief operating officer of AIDS Resource Center of Wisconsin, which is adding "a staff member to do outreach and counseling with Black MSM," reports Milwaukee News Buzz.
Just like the recent reports of escalating Black MSM seroconversions in Chicago, New York, Charlotte and other cities, the Milwaukee data barely made a "blip" on the local news. But as the rate of HIV infections among Black gay and bisexual men continues to rise with no end in sight, their specific health needs and concerns are now reaching a global platform at the 18th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2010) in Vienna.
On the day before the conference officially opened, an all-day pre-conference event addressed the soaring global rates of MSM seroconversions. BE HEARD was organized by The Global Forum on MSM & HIV and featured the debut of the Johns Hopkins-World Bank’s global survey of HIV epidemics.
"It’s not just in America," said Gregorio Millett, the senior policy adviser in the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, at a panel on HIV infections among African and Caribbean MSM. "Black men who have sex with men are at greater risk for HIV across the world." Millett, who was profiled by Black AIDS Weekly last February, added, "Black MSM are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic in the United States, in Canada, in Great Britain ? across Africa and the Caribbean. And in each case, there are high rates of seropositivity and high rates of unknown diagnosis."
A June 2009 study by the Chicago Department of Public Health found that Black gay and bisexual men under the age of 35 were "seven times more likely" to be HIV positive than their White counterparts. And the vast majority who tested positive — some two-thirds — were "unaware of their positive status."
The high rates of unknown diagnoses are even more critical in the developing world and the Black Diaspora, according to the Hopkins Study, where Black MSM rightfully fear that learning their serostatus will encourage even more stigma and homophobia.
But there is some good news to report from AIDS 2010 for Black gay and bisexual men. White House adviser Gregorio Millett is among those tasked at the White House to develop the Obama Administration’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy, the nation’s first comprehensive roadmap to fighting the epidemic. The strategy was unveiled only days before Vienna, and the Administration plans to "concentrate HIV prevention efforts at the highest-risk populations," which includes Black gay and bisexual men as well as the Black community overall, several high-ranking administration officials said at a private press conference for Black journalists.
"We want to reach people who are at the highest risk and are disproportionately burdened by this epidemic," assistant secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Howard Koh told Black AIDS Weekly at AIDS 2010. "And we also want to maximize prevention for that community. Black men who have sex with men and the Black community are where the epidemic is."
The Eastern African nation of Kenya has also identified MSM as high-risk and included them in its national HIV/AIDS strategy. "Kenya was the first African nation to do this," says Kenyan peer educator Job Akuno, a conference attendee. Akuno is a counselor with the Nairobi-based SHAP, Scaling Up HIV and AIDS Prevention, which is partially funded by PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. "This is the fourth year in a row that the government has brought MSM into the national platform. And it’s probably not going to change, thankfully," he says.
Akuno adds, "We’ve been able to do this on the national level by taking a public-health approach. The government recognizes to stop HIV from spreading, you have to halt the infections — wherever they are."
The Kenyan HIV/AIDS educator says the evidence suggests Kenyan MSM are also experiencing extraordinary rates of seroconversion. "A 2007 study by the University of Nairobi showed a 49 percent HIV-positive rate among Nairobi MSM," Akuno says. "That survey included sex workers and prison population, who are the highest risk factor. But we still believe our numbers are very high."
Despite the full-day pre-convention and numerous sessions devoted to MSM, the panelists at AIDS 2010 in Vienna were overwhelmingly vanilla. And "This conference forum is representing gay men pitifully," slams Jim Pickett with the Chicago AIDS Foundation. "The Global Forum on MSM and HIV did a calculation that showed only two percent of all sessions were devoted to gay men. That’s pitiful for an epidemic that is largely concentrated around men who have sex with men. We have to do better."
Rod McCullom, a writer and television news producer, blogs on Black gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender news and pop culture at rod20.com.