HIV/AIDS researchers, service providers, public health advocates and community members gathered for Conversations on HIV Research March 28 at the University of Chicago.
Presented by the Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus as part of a series of community conversations, the half-day summit featured speakers and forums on bridging the gap between HIV/AIDS research and Black men who have sex with men ( MSM ) .
The event was produced in partnership with Rush University Medical Center, University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, Chicago Department of Public Health, Chicago Developmental Center for AIDS Research, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.
"Black MSM are an at-risk group we know has negative outcomes [ with HIV contraction ] . We need to see how we can intervene and prevent that," said Dr. Kimberly Smith, who presented on HIV treatment.
Smith discussed strategies to keep HIV-positive Black MSM in treatment to keep their viral load down. Typically, HIV-positive people who receive regular retroviral treatment have a decreased viral load and decreased risk of passing on the virus through unprotected sexual contact.
Smith also addressed the "down low," the notion that Black men have unprotected sex with other Black men in secret or on the "down low," contract HIV and then infect their Black female primary partners. To Smith, the "down low" perpetuates the incorrect assumption that there is a method or set of characteristics people can use to identify a potential partner who carries the virus.
"The whole 'down low' discussion is ridiculous. It blames Black men for the HIV infections of Black women," said Smith. "We should be teaching women that anyone they have sex with can infect them, puts them at risk."
Dr. John Schneider, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Chicago, presented on social networks and HIV elimination. Through his research, he found similar rates of condom use and substance use within different racial communities of MSM, but the Chicago Black MSM community has an infection rate nearly seven times that of white and Latino MSM communities.
Through studying social networks of these communities, Schneider discovered that someone with a high risk of contracting HIV is much more likely to come in contact with someone who has a low risk of contracting HIV in the Black MSM community. These findings lead Schneider to recommend network or venue alerts when someone tests positive to prevent ongoing infections.
The conversation then lead to stigmatization of HIV-positive people within the Black MSM community.
"Many people viewed HIV as a punishment for same-sex sexual behavior," said Dexter Voisin of the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.
Voisin, whose research indicates Black HIV-positive MSM are less likely than white MSM to disclose their status, highlighted the stigma of HIV within the Black community. He shared several survey respondents' answers, and many of them attributed the stigma to a lack of education on HIV within the community.
"The level of misinformation was astounding, alarming," said Voisin.
In regard to disclosing his HIV-positive status to his family, one respondent said, "It's like you told your family they're actually going be planning a funeral right then and there. And don't nobody like funerals at all."
Through his research, Voisin learned that some people in the community think HIV is contracted through any physical contact, outcasting HIV-positive people due to fear of contracting the virus. Others still view an HIV diagnosis as a death sentence, unaware of retroviral treatments that greatly extend the quality and length of life.
Stigma also keeps some Black MSMs from seeking treatment because they are afraid of community and family members discovering their HIV-positive status. A misplaced prescription bottle or side effects from medication could potentially out someone as HIV-positive.
But Voisin reports that many people who disclosed their HIV-positive status to family and community members reported positive outcomes.
"After some disclosed their HIV status, they experienced lower rates of mental health issues and depression, as well as greater adherence to retroviral treatments," said Voisin.
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.