- More numbers on HIV in the U.S., and D.C. (Photo: Associated Press)
The Centers for Disease Control has released new figures charting the rising risk of HIV among gay and bisexual men. In the 21 major U.S. cities surveyed by the CDC (Washington included), one in five men who have sex with men is HIV-positive. Of particular concern to the District: Black, gay men are at the highest risk of infection. And half of HIV-positive men don't even know they have it.
According to the CDC's survey, 28 percent of black men who have sex with men are infected with HIV, compared to 16 percent of white men and 18 percent of Latino men. Young black men are at particularly high risk. In the CDC's study, gay or bisexual black men between the ages of 13 and 29 are twice as likely to contract HIV than their white and Latino counterparts. Across racial lines, gay and bisexual men are between 44 to 86 times more likely to contract HIV than straight men; they're also 40 to 77 times more likely to be diagnosed than women.
Almost half of these men don't know they're infected, and even men who receive yearly check-ups aren't necessarily aware of their HIV status. So the Whitman-Walker Clinic, D.C.'s leading health clinic for LGBT and HIV/AIDS patients, is renewing its push to get District men tested. “In D.C., the study found that one in every seven [men who have sex with men] is infected with HIV and 42 percent of participants were unaware they had HIV, even though 70 percent of participants had seen a doctor in the previous 12 months," Ray Martins, the WWC's chief medical officer, said in a statement. What's more, "the majority of new infections are caused by individuals who are unaware of their HIV status."
In light of the figures, Martins is suggesting that the District's gay and bisexual men be tested for HIV at least yearly, but preferably “two to four times a year if they are having riskier sex." (Higher risk sex can include unprotected sex, drug use during sex, or sex with multiple anonymous partners).
Free HIV tests are available five days a week at Whitman-Walker's 14th St. NW and Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE locations. But convincing District men to sign up for a quarterly Whitman-Walker exam requires more than just handouts. As the CDC study notes, "[s]tigma and homophobia may have a profound impact" on the sexual health of gay and bisexual men. Barriers to regular HIV testing include "internalized homophobia" along with "racism, poverty, and lack of access to health care." All of which means that the District of Columbia lies at the intersection of the nation's most at-risk populations for the spread of HIV, and confronting the epidemic is as much of a cultural task as it is a medical one.