If told that 35 percent of a population were infected with HIV, chances are you would think of sub-Saharan Africa, a far off area of the globe we’re often told is stricken with inhumane rates of HIV infections.
But that’s actually the infection rate among gay black men in Chicago.
A report released in December 2012 by the Chicago Department of Public Health, paints a grim picture. The prevalence of HIV among gay men in Chicago is up 20 percent from 2008 to 2011.
“Black gay men continue to be our priority population,” said Johnathon Briggs, chief officer of external relations for AIDS Foundation of Chicago. “There is a real need to intervene, to champion policies that will reduce stigmas.”
The Chicago health department report breaks down HIV rates among white, black and Hispanic men who have sex with men.
For gay white men, the rate of HIV infection is 16.8 percent. Among gay Hispanic men the rate is 12.5 percent. The rates among whites and blacks have risen since 2008, but it has held steady among Hispanics.
Poverty, incarceration, unemployment and severe social stigma all contribute to the high percentage of gay black men infected with HIV, experts noted. But nationwide, gay black men typically tend to have fewer partners than their white counterparts, according to a study done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“If you think of HIV as a pool on the South Side of Chicago, or any other urban area, and you’re a young black gay male just dipping your toe into that pool, you’re more likely to contract it because the risk factor is so high,” Jim Pickett, director of advocacy for the AIDS Foundation, said.
For white homosexual men, the rise in HIV infection can be attributed to a younger generation that is more open and experimental, and as a result, this can mean more likely to engage in riskier behaviors, said Cynthia Tucker, director of prevention for the AIDS Foundation.
While the numbers for the Hispanic population stayed steady, this isn’t necessarily seen as good news for Hispanic community leaders.
“While the numbers are technically smaller, proportionally, we are second to blacks,” said Patricia Canessa, executive director of the Chicago Hispanic Health Coalition. “We have, historically, seen many of the same barriers they do in prevention and health care.”
One common theme among all races is the difficulty of getting HIV-positive men retained in care and prescribed “viral suppression” medicines.
Of all Americans living with HIV, only 20-30 percent are “virally suppressed,” which means receiving regular health care and taking medicines that drastically reduce the risk of passing the virus.
“The public health points of intervention — which are getting tested, getting diagnosed, getting into care, staying in care — we see that people are really falling off along the way. It’s called the ‘cascade effect.’ As a whole in the country, we’re not doing a good job,” said Pickett.
“It’s obscene that only about 20 percent of people living with HIV have undetectable viral loads,” Pickett said, meaning they are actively taking HIV medicines and have a low risk of passing on the virus.
For those whose everyday work is in HIV/AIDS, ensuring access to comprehensive care for people is the most important battle.
“There is awareness and then there is education,” Briggs said. “The issue was never really awareness. Gay men were always getting tested, but it was the frequency of testing that needed to be changed.”
Throughout Chicago, there have been more testing efforts at social venues, as well as “need to know” HIV campaigns.
“The recommendation is to get tested every six months, but now we are telling people with high-risk factors or multiple partners that it should probably be every three months,” Briggs said.