Chicago HIV/AIDS groups respond to grim infection statistics
An estimated half of men who have sex with men (MSM) in Chicago with HIV/AIDS are unaware of their status, according to a new report the city's Department of Public Health released last week.
The finding is just one troubling facet among many in the CDPH's report. It is based on a study in which the department surveyed and tested 524 men, 91 of whom (17.4 percent) tested HIV-positive last fall. Epidemiologists Nikhil Prachand and Britt Skaathun Livak co-authored the study. And it also reported a marked disparity between the infection rates for Black MSM (30.1 percent) as opposed to Latino (12 percent) and white MSM (11.3 percent.)
"The findings confirm what we know about the path of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago, and they are consistent with findings in other large urban areas across the country," Christopher Brown, assistant commissioner for STI/HIV/AIDS at the DPH, said in a press release. "These rates are unacceptably high - and clearly, there is a need for continued, substantial efforts to reach people at risk with effective HIV education and testing services."
HIV/AIDS service providers interviewed for this story were not surprised by the report's findings. They agreed much work remains ahead of them to offset growing levels of complacency.
"HIV has fallen off the radar screen as a number one priority, despite the fact that infection rates are increasing, especially among young people," Eric Nelson, director of Better Existence with HIV (BEHIV), told EDGE. "We have to think about what long-term effect this could have for our communities."
Bill Farrand, director of client services for the Test Positive Aware Network, agreed.
"People have become numb to the messages that are put out there," he said. "Young people haven't sat and watched 20, 30 or 50 of their friends die like a lot of us did. They know other people that become positive, take one pill a day and look fine, so they feel like if they get it, big deal."
They also agreed the disproportionate rate of infection among black MSM serves as a call to action to address demographic and cultural barriers to access in the city.
"[Black MSM] don't want to be seen going into the local organization or clinic offering testing, because there's still a perception that it's a gay men's or gay white male's disease," Nelson continued as he specifically spoke about Chicago's western and southern neighborhoods. "This study shows we need to break down these long standing biases and feelings in various communities on what HIV means and what it means to be a gay male or someone who has sex with other men."
"There is a stigma for having HIV for any person, and for an African American male who may not be completely out, he faces a double stigma to be tested and have to reveal that," he said. "We need to step up our efforts in this area ... and go directly to the problem. We have to go and humanize the issue with people."
The news comes at a time many non-profit organizations and HIV/AIDS service groups in Chicago continue to grapple with budgetary constraints as a result of the economic climate. The city's budget deficit - currently standing at $9 billion - has put a financial crunch on social services. According to a Windy City Times story, the BEHIV has closed one of its two offices and mandated staff furloughs in order to avoid major cuts in the services it provides, including testing and education. Other organizations are making similar decisions to make ends meet.
Despite the challenges, Chicago's HIV/AIDS service providers remain committed to prevention efforts. The maintain they will continue to work with vulnerable populations and spread awareness as part of a push for lasting societal impact.
"A great deal of what has to happen really comes down to the level of society, a broader message we have to be a part of," shared Farrand. "It has to come from churches, government and the public health system that says HIV remains a real problem that can affect anybody. It's really happening and it's 100 percent preventable."
Log on to www.cityofchicago.org/health to view the CDPH's full report.