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National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day Finds Too Many Unaware

By L.K. Regan

Monday, September 27 is National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day—and in honor of the occasion the CDC has released some new research. The picture that research paints is disturbing, but plainly appropriate to the occasion: many of us need to get more aware of our HIV status, and some of us urgently so. It's a day for taking awareness literally.

In 2008, over 8,000 men who have sex with men (MSM in science parlance) were both interviewed and tested for HIV by CDC workers in 21 of the American cities with the highest infection rates. That research, released in a report last week, was conducted using "an anonymous cross-sectional interview of men at venues where MSM congregate, such as bars, clubs, and social organizations," the report says. Among those men, overall HIV prevalence was 19%, or nearly one in five. That is high. But at least equally alarming is the study's following finding: that 44% of MSM who are positive don't know it.

Rates of infection and unawareness are highest, the report says, in two populations: young men and minorities. Fully 63% of men aged 18 to 29 years who were infected were unaware of it. Among minority MSM, non-Hispanic black men have an HIV prevalence of 28%, well above average, and minority MSM more often than not (54%) were unaware of their infection. Nationwide, the CDC estimates that across all infected persons, some 21% are unaware that they have HIV. Gay and bisexual men have a long way to go to reach even that grim number.

Yet overall, minority populations are particularly impacted, this study finds. Black men were the likeliest to be unaware of their status, at 59%. Also, the study reports, "Higher proportions of MSM with no health insurance and those who had not visited a health-care provider during the preceding year, were unaware of their infection." Clearly, many of these populations overlap—the two most impacted categories are young men and black men, but fully a third of the young men in the survey were also black. And, it must be recognized that the U.S.'s long-standing link between race and poverty serves to keep health care out of the hands of many minority MSM, who then do not receive testing or counseling.

In the end, it's all about being self-aware. For National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, why not make sure you really know your status? The CDC believes that most new cases of HIV are transmitted by people unaware of their own infection. They sum up the benefits of awareness succinctly: "Men who know their current HIV infection status can be linked to appropriate medical care and prevention services. Once linked to prevention services, men can learn ways to avoid transmitting the virus to others.... Efforts to ensure at least annual HIV testing for MSM should be strengthened, and HIV testing and prevention programs should increase their efforts to reach young and minority MSM." In particular, they recommend that all men who have sex with men should be tested at least once every 12 months, and more often in some cases.

If you are interested in learning more about events surrounding National Gay Men's HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, click here.