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HIV/AIDS isn’t over

Posted Mar 17 2010 11:19am

The following article also appears in Bay Windows , New England’s Largest GLBT Newspaper.

First the good news: Last week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) did something that would have been unthinkable a mere 12 months earlier: it analyzed the rates of new HIV and syphilis infections based on population size, with one of the populations being men who have sex with men.

Why would this not have happened a year ago? Because this is the sort of reality-based science and research that rarely made it to public view under the Bush Administration. When you consider the Obama Administration’s national campaign launched last April to refocus national attention on HIV/AIDS; its commitment of resources to LGBT groups to ensure that we are accurately counted in the 2010 U.S. Census; and its very public crunching of numbers in order to measure the HIV and syphilis infection rate disparities between men who have sex with men, and women and heterosexual men, it is clear that — certain political battles aside — this administration takes us seriously.
Now the bad news: men who have sex with men are 44 times more likely to contract HIV than other men and 40 times more likely to contract HIV than women. They are 46 times more likely to contract syphilis than other men and 71 times more likely than women. Given how much the science, advocacy, policy, and research communities know about how HIV and syphilis is transmitted, it is simply depressing that gay and bisexual men are so vulnerable to infection.

So what can be done about it? Lots.

This is the most receptive political climate nationally that we’ve had since the start of the AIDS epidemic. We have a president who understands the urgency of this crisis and has unleashed his policy and research experts to deliver real information. What could be more obvious than stating that “homophobia and stigma” contribute to the high rates of infection among men who have sex with men? Nothing. Yet this is the first time federal officials have said so in such public fashion.

It is up to us to make the most of this moment. We must insist on comprehensive sexuality education in our schools that is inclusive of information about LGBT youth. And when right-wingers try to exploit such advocacy by claiming gay people are pedophiles, we must answer their terror tactics with the truth: a decade’s worth of abstinence-only sexuality education has deprived a generation of young people of honest information about how their bodies work, how women get pregnant, and how HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases are transmitted from one person to another.

We need to continue the hard work of reducing homophobia and stigma related to gay sex. We need funding for prevention programs and campaigns that are as diverse as the gay community itself. We need additional research into how to influence human behavior. Let’s face it: it’s hard to engage in safer-sex practices in every sexual encounter throughout a lifetime.

Last, and perhaps most important, we need to bring the prevention and advocacy focus back on gay and bisexual men. Despite high profile headlines to the contrary, HIV isn’t over in the gay community. Not by a longshot.

Michael Shankle, M.P.H., is the director of the AIDS Action Committee ’s South End-based MALE Center .

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