Men who have sex with men (MSM) continue to be the population most affected by the HIV epidemic. More recently, young black MSM have emerged as the population facing the greatest burden of the HIV disease. While we have seen steady declines in HIV diagnoses across all age groups and all risk populations in Chicago, black MSM under the age of 30 are the only group currently experiencing annual increases in new HIV diagnoses. Chicago is committed to reversing this trend.
Earlier today I joined staff from the Chicago Department of Public Health and key community partners to release our latest HIV Behavioral Surveillance report focusing on MSM in Chicago. This report highlights the societal characteristics that are creating barriers to preventing HIV transmission, but it also reveals significant improvements that the MSM community has made toward fighting the HIV epidemic. Bottom line: Our report soundly demonstrates that since 2008, MSM in Chicago are testing for HIV more frequently, have greater knowledge of their own HIV status and have greater access to HIV antiretroviral therapies. Results are particularly strong and promising for young black MSM. I see these findings as very hopeful signs that increased community mobilization and enhanced efforts in expanding HIV testing and linkage to care are having a positive impact on Chicago's HIV epidemic.
Rather than talking to individuals over the phone or in doctor offices, our staff put "boots on the ground" to interview over 1,000 men in bars, nightclubs, fitness centers, Pride events, parks, restaurants and churches. In addition to the Boystown area, we canvassed the South, West and far North Sides of Chicago. This was an enormous undertaking that would not have been possible without the support of our community partners. Venue proprietors opened their doors to our interview team nearly every night of the week. Members of Chicago Area HIV Integrated Services Council (CAHISC), the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus (CBGMC) and many other community advocates ensured that our survey reached underrepresented MSM throughout the city.I want to highlight three important findings in this report:
- Nearly all men who were interviewed (99 percent) report having had an HIV test in their lifetime. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends annual HIV testing, and over half of Chicago MSM (57 percent) are currently meeting this standard, with the highest rate of routine HIV testing (71 percent) found among young black MSM.
- More Chicago MSM are aware of their HIV status. In 2008, 50 percent of HIV-positive MSM we interviewed were unaware of their infection at the time of the survey. In this latest report the rate had dropped to 24 percent. This decrease was greatest among black MSM.
- More HIV-positive MSM, regardless of race, are being linked to care and are on HIV treatment (antiretroviral therapy, or ART). The largest increase was seen in black MSM. In 2008, 44 percent of HIV-positive black MSM surveyed reported taking HIV medications. By 2011 that rate had increased to 84 percent.
Though many challenges remain in promoting equality and improving the health of MSM in Chicago, the findings from our report are consistent with enhancements that have been made recently in expanded HIV testing programs, "know your status" campaigns and linkage to care strategies used by the Chicago Department of Public Health and our community partners.
Chicago is moving in the right direction toward equality. I look forward to an AIDS-free generation here in Chicago and across the world.
Follow Bechara Choucair, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/choucair