Men who have sex with men. MSM. It’s the simple catch-all term used in studies to define gay and bisexual men. The term “MSM” doesn’t conjure up the typical light-hearted stereotypes that are associated with the word “gay.” MSM doesn’t sound fashionable or fun. It’s cold, clinical, and it’s exact. And it’s who we are.
Nationally, MSM represent 2% of the U.S. population, yet account for more than half of all new HIV infections. MSM are the only risk group for HIV in which new infections have increased steadily since the early 90s.
“Since the beginning of the US epidemic, MSM have consistently represented the largest percentage of persons diagnosed with AIDS and persons with an AIDS diagnosis who have died,” reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A CDC report issued in September revealed both encouraging and frightening results for Atlanta’s gay community. In a nationwide study, Atlanta had the lowest HIV rate among MSM versus all other cities in the study, at 6 percent. However, Atlanta was near the top of the list in MSM who did not know they were HIV positive, at a whopping 55 percent.
So why the mystery over the community’s HIV status?
“A Renewed Epidemic”
Tracy Elliott doesn’t hesitate when asked what the barriers are to HIV prevention.
“Apathy and indifference,” says the executive director of AID Atlanta. He cites a misguided feeling among many in the community that HIV is no longer a dangerous or deadly disease.
“There’s also a sense of fatigue on the part of people my age who’ve been dealing with this now for close to 30 years and people are tired of it,” he says. “But the danger is still there.”
Breakthroughs in HIV medication and science have also had the unintended consequence of giving a false sense of security. Those living with HIV/AIDS often take “the cocktail” – a combination of antiretroviral drugs taken to combat the disease.
Last December, on the heels of World AIDS Day, a 40-year-old American man in Berlin was classified as cured of HIV. The announcement came three-and-a-half years after Brown underwent a transplant of HIV-resistant stem cells for the treatment of leukemia. Doctors and scientists have been quick to point out that the treatment cannot be applied to the vast majority of HIV patients.
“We should be clear that this ‘cure’ will in fact have almost no impact on the average HIV-infected patient,” says Bert Jacobs, a professor at Arizona State University at Tempe as reported by EmaxHealth.
It’s a combination of seemingly beneficial events that unfortunately lead to riskier behavior like unprotected sex. “The way that human beings react to risk is that it’s got to be pretty immediate before it significantly changes behavior,” Elliott says. “And the risk doesn’t seem to be nearly as immediate as it used to be. It’s still there but it doesn’t seem to be as in our faces as it once was.”
The numbers of young MSM unaware of their positive HIV status are skyrocketing as well, which doesn’t bode well for the future. “You just think about how many people are unaware of their status, and of course those people are much more likely to spread HIV as statistically shown by the CDC,” Elliott says.
“You have on your hands a renewed epidemic in a sense. It’s a different kind of epidemic but it’s still shocking and alarming.”
Eyes Wide Open
Whatever the excuses people find for not getting tested, the fact remains we’re still losing each other. We’re not losing a generation of gay men overnight like we were in the 80s and 90s, but we’re still losing each other.
“I had a friend in Indianapolis die over the weekend of HIV/AIDS,” says Elliott. “He was under 35 years of age, so this is still a disease that claims young and vital lives. This was an amazing musician who just had an amazing zest for life.”
The death has rocked Indianapolis’ gay community out of a peaceful slumber regarding HIV/AIDS. “Unfortunately it takes something like that to get us to recognize that this is still a very dangerous situation,” Elliott says.
The way to keeping something like that from happening in Atlanta is clear. Getting tested, asking a potential sexual partner’s status, and practicing safe sex are basic adult decisions.
“You’ve got to take responsibility for yourself and not depend on anyone to protect you,” Elliott says.
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