Nearly 20 years after this nation’s first reported HIV cases, Chicago may be losing some ground in stopping the spread of the disease among the men-who-have sex-with-men population, according to a newly released health study.

The study, conducted in late 2008 by the city’s department of public health, showed a high prevalence of HIV infection among that population referred to as MSMs. Of the 570 men surveyed, 17.4 percent tested positive for HIV compared to the rates for all men in Chicago, which is 1.2 percent. But the study also showed a racial and ethnic disparity in rates.

Black men in that population were two times more likely to be infected with the disease compared to their white and Hispanic counterparts. According to the study, about 30 percent of blacks were HIV positive compared to about 11 percent of whites and 12 percent of Hispanics.

The disparity widens when age is factored in. Blacks under age 35 were seven times more likely to be infected with the disease. The study also found that half of all men who tested positive for HIV were unaware of their infection and that many were infected within the past year.

“Cleary, this is an indication that Chicago’s HIV epidemic continues to grow and spread, particularly among Black MSMs,” said Christopher Brown, the health department’s assistant commissioner of STD/HIV/AIDS division.

Fear and the perception of low HIV risk fuels high infections of the virus among the black MSM population, said Alicia Ozier, executive director of Taskforce Prevention and Community Service, 9 N. Cicero Ave. The center provides HIV services and testing on the West Side. She explained that some black men in that population fear a positive HIV result, and therefore do not get tested.

Many black men who have sex with other men see themselves as low risks for HIV, Ozier said, because they only engage in certain sexual behaviors, like oral sex . They may also have had unprotected sex only a few times. Additionally, those men, who do not identify themselves as gay but occasionally have sex with men, also consider themselves as low-risk for HIV.

“What we are seeing as service providers is that people are weighing risk-factors [believing] that if they only do this and don’t do that [then] those factors are different for me,” Ozier said. “The idea of low-risk is a game of HIV Russian roulette.”

High rates of the virus among black men in that population, especially on the West Side, can be linked to stigmas associated with homosexuality, drug use and poverty, she added.

Nikhil Prachand, a senior epidemiologist with the city’s public health department, noted that the men-sexing-men social networks also impacts rates. He explained social networks are opportunities, or venues, to meet sexual partners. These networks, Prachand said, may influence the type of partners, or the number of partners, MSMs have. He noted that the rates for Austin’s black male population in that group are similar to those outlined in the study.

“It is not just the individual risk behavior that leads to infection. It is also the environment that you live that influences the chances of HIV.”

Ariq Cabbler, co-chair of the Chicago Black Gay Men Caucus, added that many of these social networks fall outside established gay clubs or centers. He noted that it could be just a group of young black gay men living in North Lawndale’s K-Town that get together. Since these “friendship circles” are underground, Cabbler said many may not be getting information about HIV/AIDS prevention. Or, they may be getting misinformation about who’s most at risk.

To address the prevalence of HIV among black males, prevention efforts must be a top priority followed by appropriate levels of funding, Ozier insists.

“We must be realistic in our presentation of this epidemic to the community. No one is low risk,” she said.