As infection rates rise, knowing your HIV status is paramount

Posted on 26 Jul 2007 at 4:06pm
By Bret Camp – Special Contributor

Resource Center of Dallas offers free testing on Saturday



Bret Camp Special Contributor

Of all the health and social issues facing the broader gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities today, HIV/AIDS continues to linger as the biggest threat to the health and well being of gay men. None of us are immune to the concern.

And 25 years into the epidemic, testing and counseling are still important tools for gay men to use to prevent and manage the disease.

Across the country and here in Dallas last month, thousands of HIV testing programs, including the Resource Center of Dallas, participated in National HIV Testing Day holding health fairs and community outreach in bars and clubs, extending office hours and offering other special testing-related events.

Certainly, an annual event is valuable in raising awareness of the importance of knowing one’s HIV status and encouraging everyone to receive an HIV test. But while many people test because they think they may be at risk, I am alarmed that we are seeing more and more people who think they are not at risk receiving positive test results.

In our community health and HIV programs at the Resource Center, we believe testing day is every day, including this Saturday at the Nelson-Tebedo Clinic.

By now, most of us know the statistics:

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that more than 1 million Americans are living with HIV, and one quarter of those people are unaware of their infection. In Texas, that could mean thousands of people unaware hundreds here in Dallas. Testing gives people with HIV the knowledge and steps to take to protect their own health and that of their partners and helps those who test negative get the information they need to say uninfected.

HIV testing is entering a new era, with everything from CDC’s controversial recommendations last year, to lawmakers, health care professionals, insurance companies and public health leaders making or proposing changes in their respective fields to reduce the spread of the virus and prevent infections by increasing the number of people who know their status. Outside the clinical settings in community organizations with testing and counseling programs like the Resource Center, the use of rapid HIV tests and other technology is growing in potential as an effective and sound community health practice.

Still, with new policies, guidelines, tools and initiatives, no one knows better than gay men how to prevent the disease.

Those of us old enough learned the hard and painful lessons during the l980s and early l990s from the devastation wreaked upon friends, family and loved ones. Gay men took the power and control then of education and outreach and developed the infrastructure that dropped new infections by historic proportions.

It is time for that generation and a new generation to renew the power of our community.

Because with 25 years of the epidemic under our belt, we are seeing an alarming apathy, a battle fatigue, if you will about safer sex, about prevention, about the whole “instructional” message and the real impact of becoming HIV-positive.

Infection rates are climbing again. So we have to find ways to keep talking about prevention and testing, in new words, terms and practices. This is especially true of the groups that have traditionally been hardest to reach or who perceive themselves as low risk: young gay men and gay men of color.

At the Resource Center we have programs specifically aimed at these populations, from helping young men between 18 and 24 make smart decisions, to breaking down cultural and language barriers every day here in the Dallas Metroplex.

And, believe it or not, dramatic increases in high risk behaviors are occurring among older, white and relatively affluent gay men; the very group for whom traditional prevention and testing efforts were most effective is now in danger again.

Why are infection rates climbing again?

According to the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America (ACRIA) there are two key contributing factors to the increased spread of HIV among gay men:

“Gay men have much higher rates of depression than the overall population of men about 20 percent of gay men show some signs of depression, as compared to about 7 percent of all men,” writes Spencer Cox of ACRIA.

Depression has been strongly linked with unsafe sex in HIV-negative men, says Cox, who adds, “However, interestingly, the risk is concentrated not among men with the most serious kinds of depression, but among men with mild, chronic depression.”

Substance abuse, according to ACRIA, and particularly use of stimulant drugs such as ecstasy, cocaine, meth, K and G, has become highly normalized within the gay community. In 2001, an ACRIA study found that almost one in four urban gay men had recently used one of these drugs, and almost one in five reported “multiple use” of these highly addictive drugs strongly associated with risky sexual behavior and HIV infection.

Drug abuse has only gotten worse!

Now, more than ever, our prevention, testing and counseling programs must be more aggressive in breaking through the barriers and addressing the myriad of gay men’s health concerns, including substance abuse and mental health specifically depression, as an example. Beyond the obvious need to develop and strengthen our multi-cultural outreach, substance abuse and mental health counseling programs as part of a comprehensive HIV prevention effort, the gay community also has to look again and rework the puzzle about our behaviors, our attitudes, our addictions and our mental health.

And as simple as it may sound, an HIV test is an important corner piece of the puzzle. So we hope everyone will take advantage of the opportunity this weekend to get tested.

Bret Camp is associate executive director for HIV and Medical Services at the Resource Center of Dallas.

FREE HIV TESTS
The Resource Center of Dallas will offer free HIV tests from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, July 28, at the Nelson Tebedo Clinic, 4012 Cedar Springs Road.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 27, 2007

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