National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day – NGMHAAD – is coming September 27, three months to the day after National HIV Testing Day, and hard on the heels of July’s landmark International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Washington, D.C. We have two messages this year: Be aware, know your risk, and, Let’s end this epidemic! Because we matter – and we can.
Speaker after speaker at IAC returned to this year’s good but challenging news: yes, we still need more science to stamp out HIV – more and better antivirals, an effective vaccine, and a functional cure – but we already have all the biomedical tools we need to make new HIV infections a thing of the past. The hard part is reaching “key populations” – groups with high rates of existing infections and new infections because they have been marginalized, stigmatized, denied civil rights, and excluded from health care.
NGMHAAD is for one of those “key populations:” this country’s men who have sex with men (MSM). NAPWA founded NGMHAAD in 2008 because we want them to know the epidemic isn’t over. We want them to know how high their HIV risk really is – because so many are already infected, and too many don’t know it. And we want them to know that we’ve come a long way since AIDS was first reported in 1981, and even further since Stonewall, but stigma is still driving this epidemic and gay men don’t have to take it anymore.
So let’s look at some numbers and see what that the gay men’s HIV epidemic looks like in the U.S.
The July 28 issue of The Lancet opened an admirable series of articles on HIV among gay men worldwide with a look at epidemiology, and reported that HIV prevalence among men who have sex with men in its North American region is a jaw-dropping 15.4% – almost one in six. The real prevalence may be a little lower - The Lancet assumes that only 3.7% of American men are MSM, a number we think is too low, and raising the estimated number of MSM would reduce the calculated prevalence a little – but it’s still clear that prevalence is breathtakingly higher among MSM than in the rest of the population.
Let’s calculate just how much higher.
About 251 million Americans are 15 or older. If 5 percent of the men are MSM, we have 6.3 million MSM and 245 million “others” 15-and-older in this country. We’re all familiar with the CDC’s estimates that 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and 60% of them are MSM. That gives us 480,000 infections in 245 million “others,” for a prevalence of 0.2% – one in five hundred. It also gives us 720,000 infections in 6.3 million American MSM, for a prevalence of 11.5% – just shy of one in eight. HIV prevalence among American MSM is almost 60 times what it is in the rest of the population.
That means HIV-negative MSM who are active with partners whose status they don’t know are at much higher risk than many realize. So the first and most important message of National Gay Men’s Awareness Day is – simply – be aware. Know your status. Know your risk. If you aren’t absolutely sure you know your own and your partner’s status, keep your condoms handy.
In September 10’s Positive Voice, we’ll write about how we got to where we are and what’s needed to deal with the MSM epidemic on the ground. Why near-universal testing is so important when prevalence is already so high. The need to confront stigma and talk frankly about sex in communities where this is deeply uncomfortable. The need for pride and love. The need to have culturally competent and welcoming health care for MSM.
And in the September 24 issue, just three days before NGMHAAD, we’ll remember the quarter-million (at least) American MSM who have died of AIDS and examine our responsibility as their survivors to demand action to end this epidemic once and for all. Now that we can, we must.
- Gay Men’s Wives, Homophobia and HIV (dgsmith.org)
- The Ongoing HIV/AIDS Epidemic Among Active ‘Gay’ Men (illuminati360.wordpress.com)
- Gay, bisexual black men at high risk for HIV (thechart.blogs.cnn.com)
- Anti-Gay Stigma And Criminalization Help Maintain HIV Epidemic (thinkprogress.org)