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Black MSM Caught in HIV's Net by Complex Web of Factors

October 22, 2012

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African-American men who have sex with men (MSM) remain disproportionately impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S., but the causes of and solutions to this disparity defy easy definition, according to an oral presentation at the inaugural IDWeek meeting in San Diego.

Of about 50,000 persons in the U.S. who were newly infected with HIV in 2009, the most recent year for which national surveillance numbers are available, 44% were African American, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Although black MSM account for less than 1% of the U.S. population, they comprise one in four of new infections every year," said Greg Millett, M.P.H., a behavioral scientist at the CDC in Atlanta.

Millett noted the alarming data on the HIV "treatment cascade" that has become one of the most widely discussed topics in U.S. HIV care today: Of approximately one million people living with HIV in the U.S., only 82% are diagnosed, only 33% have been prescribed antiretroviral therapy and only 25% are virologically suppressed.


But in every step of that treatment cascade, black MSM are worse off than the general population, Millett said. He cited data that he and his colleagues published earlier this year in Lancet showing that black MSM are approximately 640% more likely to have undiagnosed HIV, while those who are diagnosed are 53% less likely to have health insurance, 44% less likely to receive antiretroviral therapy, half as likely to adhere to their regimen and about half as likely to achieve an undetectable viral load.

Black MSM are the most impacted population in the U.S., and the toll of the disease among them is comparable to epidemics experienced in sub-Saharan Africa, Millett said. But he added that, contrary to many assumptions, the disproportionate impact is not due to a greater level of unsafe health practices. For instance, research indicates that black MSM have comparable rates of unprotected anal sex to white MSM, and are less likely to have multiple sex partners, he said.

And yet, "Between 2006 and 2009, the CDC found a 48% increase in new infections among young MSM, and the 'Brothers' study, discussed recently at the International AIDS Conference, found a 6% rate of HIV incidence among 1,500 black MSM who were under the age of 30," Millett said.

The CDC has thoroughly documented the severity of the epidemic, but researchers are still searching hard for an explanation, Millett suggested. According to published research discussed by Millett in his presentation, the most important factor associated with higher HIV prevalence among black MSM was having sex with a black partner. "There is a high background prevalence of HIV in black communities, and black MSM may be more likely to have contact with an infected partner," he explained.

One issue behind the disparity may have to do with sexuality disclosure, Millett said. He noted that patients who disclose to their primary care provider that they are gay or bisexual are more likely to receive HIV testing, as well as interventions such as hepatitis A and B vaccination, but that black MSM are 68% less likely to disclose their sexuality to a physician. Several studies show high levels of mistrust with health care professionals, which in turn may be associated with not taking HIV medications and missing clinical visits, said Millett, who added that black and Latino MSM are more likely to harbor conspiracy beliefs regarding the dangers posed by HIV medications, the link between HIV and AIDS, and the origin of HIV itself.

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This article was provided by TheBodyPRO. It is a part of the publication IDWeek 2012.

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