HIV is on the rise.
Most gay men don’t know it. And they don’t want to talk about it, according to experts.
Gay and bisexual men now account for two-thirds of all new HIV infections, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report released for National Gay Men HIV Awareness Day.
“It’s time for us to all reflect and do work together, honor those who have passed, but also those in the struggle still,” said Ernest Walker, program director for Us Helping Us, a Washington-based organization to support the gay black community.
HIV is a burden placed on the very few. There were 872,990 people living with an HIV diagnosis in the U.S. in 2011, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half were gay and bisexual men, even though they’re estimated to make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population.
“It’s alarming. We should encourage all gay men to be an advocate for their own health. That includes knowing your HIV status and learning more about your prevention and treatment options,” said Juan Carlos Loubriel, community health manager for Whitman-Walker Health.
HIV Awareness Day is the ideal time to reach out, Walker said, and many organizations are doing just that. Us Helping Us hosted a community day with a radio station, soda pop, hot dogs – and free HIV testing.
Whitman-Walker sent its people to gay clubs to provide free HIV testing and outreach.
That outreach is needed because many gay men are misinformed about HIV and their treatment options. Gay and bisexual men are the only group in which the HIV infections are increasing. But just one-third of them know that, said the Kaiser survey.
Just as many gay men believed – incorrectly – that HIV is on the decline.
The reason may be generational. Half of gay men of Generation X or older said they lost someone close to them due to HIV/AIDS, according to Kaiser. Less than 10 percent of millennials, born after the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, can say the same.
“For those of us who are older, we know what it’s like to not have HIV in our life. But for them it’s always been there so they don't make a big deal about it,” Walker said. “They don’t like talking about it, and they won’t unless someone brings it up.”
Young gay men are less likely to seek out medical care than older gay men, the CDC said. And they’re reluctant to talk about it. Seventy percent of gay men said they rarely discuss HIV with their friends.
The CDC recommends annual HIV testing for gay men due to their heightened risk. One-third are tested annually and a similar percentage don’t have a regular physician.
One highly effective tool is also one of the most controversial. The CDC recently recommended that gay men who are not HIV positive and are at substantial risk begin taking antiretroviral drugs.
The drug therapy, called PrEP, can reduce the risk of transmitting HIV by 96 percent, the CDC said.
“It’s like a birth control for gay men,” Loubriel said. But three out of four gay men don’t know about it.