HIV infection rates occur in the United States at a far greater rate than previously thought, according to a special HIV issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association released to coincide with the XVII International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. The CDC utilized new methodology and technology which differentiates new versus long-standing infections. They determined that in 2006, an estimated 56,300 new cases of HIV infections occurred, significantly higher than the prior estimate of 40,000 cases.
Men who have sex with men accounted for 53% of these new cases, and African Americans, while only 13% of the U.S. population, accounted for 45% of the cases. These statistics represent a discouraging trend for both populations, especially for gay men who for many years saw a steady decline in new rates of infection.
Abstract numbers are difficult to personalize and it's extremely easy to disconnect our daily routines from this deadly trend. But every gay man needs to ask himself "what do these numbers mean for me?" Here are some things to consider...
1. Do I know my status?
A significant number of new infections occur because men who are HIV positive (but don't know it) inadvertently infect others. Having unprotected sex with someone who claims to be negative is foolish. Many men don't get tested because they don't want to know. Others may have not yet converted or worse, they're not being honest. Take charge of your health - get tested.
2. Do I engage in safer sex?
Practicing safer sex takes a little more thought and effort, but doesn't necessarily rule out an erotic experience. It is important to be informed about specific high risk behaviors, and with a little creativity something like putting on a condom can turn into a two-man operation that enhances the mood. Use your imagination!
3. Do I party a little too much?
A major factor behind the rise in HIV rates among gay men is substance abuse, particularly methamphetamine. Meth increases sexual desire while, ironically, causing erectile dysfunction. It also results in less impulse control and inhibition which translates to risky sexual behavior. There are many men who first used "Tina" and ended up with HIV. If you think you might have a problem, check out Crystal Meth Anonymous or Meth and Men South Florida.
4. What's the big deal?
Life with HIV isn't always as thrilling as it appears to be for the guy doing the rock climbing in that medication ad. While living with the virus has changed dramatically over the years, it remains a life-threatening illness that cannot be cured. The medications themselves can cause serious physical problems, including long term damage to the heart, liver, and kidneys. People continue to die from AIDS. It is a big deal.
5. So what can I do about it?
Make HIV your business, whether you are negative or positive or not sure. HIV/AIDS affects us all. Whether it's advocating for better public policy, or giving service to the community, or being sexually responsible, every one of us needs to get active. Let's make it the community norm to stay involved with the issue of HIV. This is life and death, and we have the power to make a difference.