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Black prides hold historic HIV forum
by Mason Harrison

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A group of health professionals and disease experts gathered in two locations in the city of Chicago June 30 to discuss and explore various issues surrounding ethnic and racial disparities in levels of HIV infection, including the possible need for the formation of new federal guidelines to address transmission rates among Black men who have sex with men ( MSM ) . Dubbed "historic," the event was sponsored by the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus and featured panelists at Sidetrack in Lakeview and at Club Escape on the city's South Side.

Organizers had planned to simulcast comments from each panel so that audience members at either location could hear and participate in the other venue's discussion, but technological issues ran that attempt aground. The panelists—which included Rodney Perkins of the Gay Men's Health and Wellness Clinic in Washington, D.C.; Jim Pickett of AIDS Foundation of Chicago; Anthony Galloway of Test Positive Aware Network; Lora Branch of the Chicago Department of Public Health; Beau Gratzer of the Howard Brown Health Center; and Tommy Bennett of WVON—recited grim data from a Chicago health department survey of Black MSM that, according to Branch, "didn't tell us anything that we didn't already know."

The data from the July 2009 survey show that Black MSM are twice as likely as their white and Latino counterparts to be infected with HIV and that 50 percent of Black MSM surveyed were not aware of their HIV infection status at the time of the survey. Some good news, however, pointed to the fact that " [ m ] any [ Black MSM ] unaware of their HIV infection…had acquired their infection in the past year and were engaged in HIV testing and medical care at similar rates as other MSM," according to the survey. Further still, the survey noted that certain high-risk behaviors associated with HIV contraction were no more prevalent among Black MSM than among other populations of MSM.

Gratzer noted that current federal guidelines for the treatment of HIV among high-risk populations are loosely followed by a number of service providers in the Black community and that any new guidelines for Black MSM should only come after the current guidelines are more strictly adhered to. He also suggested that a way increase prevention and awareness would be to recommend that people receive HIV testing at least twice a year instead of the current federal recommendation of once per year.

Grazter and Branch both set out to dispel certain myths surrounding the issue of HIV infection in the Black community. Branch noted that the "down-low" ( DL ) phenomenon among Black MSM is overrated as it relates to HIV transmission. She said: "DL is not contributing to HIV infection among Black women. DL is not the preponderance of Black gay men." Grazter pointed out that research shows that the idea that HIV infection rates are highest among those who engage in so-called high-risk behavior a mistaken notion. He pointed out: "Data indicate you're much more likely to get HIV from a main partner. Sixty to 70 percent of new infections are from main partners." Gratzer said the reason for this is because partners often forgo condoms at some point during what they believe is a monogamous relationship, which then can lead to HIV transmission.

In the end, however, no consensus was reached on the necessity of formulating new federal guidelines for Black MSM or on the way forward in general. "We have a lot more questions than we have answers," concluded Branch.

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