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CDC Unveils New Campaign to Encourage HIV Testing Among Black Gay Men

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Wednesday August 17, 2011

The Centers for Disease Control on Monday, Aug. 15, unveiled a new campaign designed to reduce disproportionate rates of HIV among black gay and bisexual men.

The "Testing Makes Us Stronger" campaign seeks to encourage black men who have sex with men (MSM) to get tested. The campaign will feature advertising in online and print publications that target black MSM and on billboards and public transportation systems.

"Testing Makes Us Stronger" will also conduct outreach on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks. The campaign will also distribute posters, postcards and other materials to HIV/AIDS service organizations, public health departments and black Prides around the country.

Doctor Richard Wolitski of the CDC's Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention noted a 2008 CDC study that indicates 59 percent of black MSM with HIV were unaware of their status as he previewed the campaign to HIV/AIDS service providers and journalists at the annual National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta. "People who know that they have HIV can take steps to decrease the risk that they'll transmit the virus to others, such as adopting safer-sex practices and beginning anti-retroviral treatment," he said. "The need for greater testing among black MSM is clear."

Wolitski applauded CDC's work to reduce disproportionate rates of HIV among black MSM, but he conceded these efforts are not nearly enough.

"We know that these efforts are not at the scale that they need to be, and from what we've heard today, it's clear that we need to intensify HIV prevention for black men who have sex with men," he said. "HIV testing is one critical key component of prevention services that are needed for this population."

"Testing Makes Us Stronger" is part of the five-year, $45 million campaign that the White House unveiled in 2009 to refocus attention on HIV prevention and testing. The "Know Where You Stand" campaign that launched earlier this year sought to deliver effective HIV/AIDS prevention messages to black MSM around the country.

"We need to be focusing at the individual level, at the family level in communities across the country and certainly looking at the societal level, laws and policies, governance that can really help our prevention efforts with this group," said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention at the CDC.

The CDC's own statistics continue to underscore the need to address disproportionate rates of HIV among black MSM.

New infection rates among black MSM between the ages of 13-29 rose 48 percent between 2006 and 2009, while a CDC report that was released earlier this month indicates rates of primary and secondary syphilis cases among black MSM between the ages of 20-24 increased 167 percent between 2005 and 2008. Fifty-nine percent of black MSM with syphilis also have HIV, compared to 50 percent of white MSM and 49 percent of Latinos. The same report also founded that the rate of co-infection among black MSM between 15-19 years was 35 percent, versus 22 percent of white MSM and only 11 percent of Latino MSM.

"These new analyses underscore the urgency of reaching young black men who have sex with men with HIV prevention," said Fenton. "We cannot allow the health of a new generation of young, black gay and bisexual men to be lost to essentially preventable diseases."

Doctor John Su, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's Division of STD Prevention who conducted the co-infection assessment, agreed.

"These observations from these two analyses indicate an urgent need to intensify HIV and syphilis prevention efforts, along with STD prevention efforts in general, to fully address the factors that place young black MSM at risk for these diseases," he said.

The CDC plans to officially launch the campaign on Sept. 27-Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day-in Atlanta, Houston, New York, Baltimore and Oakland, Calif. These five cities have disproportionately high rates of HIV among their black MSM populations.

Kali Lindsey, senior director of federal policy at the Harlem United Community AIDS Center in New York, said he welcomes the "Testing Makes Us Stronger" campaign. Lindsay, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2003, stressed knowing one's status is a crucially important step to reducing disparities among black MSM.

"That's a benefit that should be afforded to every black gay man who is at risk or living with HIV and is not aware of it today,"

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.