HIV rates soar among young black men

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By ARTHUR TOUCHOT

New HIV infections among young black men who have sex with men have increased nearly 50 percent between 2006 and 2009 in the U.S., according to a recent study.

The report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that African-American men had the highest rate of new HIV infections of all groups in 2009. Their rate of infection was more than 2 ½ times that of the next highest groups, Hispanic men and black women.

According to the study, new infections among black men who have sex with men aged 13 to 29 increased from 4,400 cases in 2006 to 6,500 cases in 2009. In Illinois, "the picture is incredibly similar," the report states.

According to the CDC study, reasons for the increase are not fully known, but may include an already high prevalence of HIV among black men who have sex with men. Societal factors-such as the stigma of HIV and homosexuality, limited access to health care, and poverty-were also noted.

Experts also note that young men are more likely to get infected than older men because their lack of education and experience make them take greater risks.

"Perhaps these young men are a little na•ve, and so, many continue to think 'it won't happen to me,'" said Cheryl Ward, the HIV surveillance program administrator at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

She adds that new HIV cases among young black men who have sex with men have increased roughly 48 percent between 2006 and 2009 in Illinois. The growing effectiveness of HIV medication, according to Ward, has made some people-often young males-less careful in their sexual encounters.

"In some cases, we've heard people say 'if I get HIV, I'll be fine because I can take medicine,' or, 'it's not as frightening as it once was,'" Ward said.

Young black men are also disadvantaged by their limited access to healthcare, says Ann Fisher, executive director of the Aids Legal Council of Chicago.

"We have to remember that HIV remains a disease of poverty, and these men simply do not get the same access to medical care as other groups might," she said.

The problem, Fisher adds, becomes cyclical because once the disease has affected a vulnerable group, its spread is likely to gain strength. Fisher said HIV spreads faster in groups with no access to healthcare because "people who are not getting care are more contagious."

Chicago has to exploit entry points such as emergency rooms in order to fight the spread of HIV, Fisher insists.

"ERs are one of the only places where we can meet these young men, and this is why we need to administer HIV testing for patients and people visiting emergency rooms," she said.

Ward agreed, saying: "We are not going to get many opportunities, so we need to test them while they are our captive audience."

While limited resources challenge the department's ability to serve all groups affected by HIV and AIDS, Ward remains optimistic that the state is doing its best to fight the disease.

"We are focusing our efforts on populations most in need," she said. "We are working ourselves out of our jobs hopefully."

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