The U.S. will observe National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Wednesday. Health care workers in the District said it’s a chance to promote testing for men and continue efforts to eliminate the stigma linked to HIV.
“For many over the course of this epidemic, there’s been the feeling that people with HIV are somehow the vector of this disease when actually, in this case, they’re the root for us to end this epidemic,” said Michael Kharfen, director of the division on policy and data in the federal government’s Health Resources and Services Administration’s HIV/AIDS Bureau.
The day is especially significant in D.C., as the District has the most HIV cases per capita nationwide, according to Kharfen, at nearly three times the national rate. Baltimore and Prince George’s County in Maryland also have a high number of HIV diagnoses.
Moreover, recent data reveals that 70% of all new HIV cases in the U.S. are among gay and bisexual men, even though these groups make up about 2% of the population.
Kharfen said the disproportionate number of gay and bisexual men with HIV/AIDS has created a “greater risk” for new cases. In other words, because more gay men have HIV/AIDS, more new cases occur. And the stigma linked to being gay and contracting the virus is preventing some gay men from receiving lifesaving care.
“Over the years, that has complicated the opportunities for gay men to access services, to get tested, get treatment and take advantage of other prevention opportunities,” Kharfen said.
Kharfen has tracked the spread of HIV/AIDS among gay and bisexual men since the 1980s.
He said there are some bright spots in the fight against the disease through the federal government’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. It provides outpatient HIV care, treatment and support services to people without health insurance.
Nearly 91% of gay and bisexual men in the program who receive drugs to suppress the virus are undetectable. Patients who are undetectable cannot sexually transmit the virus to partners and can live longer, healthier lives, Kharfen said.
“People are living and thriving, even with HIV,” he said. “There are so many people who are accessing services and getting care. We have some of the highest viral suppression rates, which is our measure of success in HIV treatment.”
Health workers hope the Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day will also highlight the importance of getting tested regularly.
“The first step is to know your status,” Kharfen said. “If your results are HIV-negative, then look into the prevention opportunities, like taking a safe medication that prevents you from getting HIV. And, if the result is positive, get care right away.”
To find out more information on the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, head to the agency’s website.