Gay Epidemics Cannot Be Ignored

Published: August 12, 2010

I always look forward to the biennial International AIDS Conference. It is an opportunity to share experiences, learn about the latest in prevention research, and catch up with colleagues.

The conferences are enormous and overwhelming but exciting, as they bring together more than 20,000 delegates from around the world.

The most recent conference in Vienna was even more exciting, with positive results coming in from early safety and efficacy trials of vaginal microbicides, as well as in the area of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PEP).

This conference did pose a challenge though, and that was finding relevant content in the main program that addressed issues for gay and other men who have sex with men (MSM). Yes, the global HIV epidemic is diverse, but gay and other MSM are still one of the groups most at risk.

Only an alarming 2 percent of the conference’s main program was related to HIV issues specific to MSM. This paucity of MSM-specific programming in the main conference makes events like BE HEARD, an all-day event hosted by the Global Forum on MSM and HIV, even more important.

At this meeting, findings from the Johns Hopkins – World Bank’s global survey of HIV epidemics among MSM in 2010 were unveiled, which demonstrated HIV prevalence rates as high as 21.4 percent in Malawi, 13.8 percent in Peru and 23 percent in Thailand.

The data released defined the current state of the HIV epidemic among MSM as characterised by ongoing epidemics in low and middle income countries, resurgent epidemics in high income countries (like Australia), and the discovery of new epidemics in areas that previously had no data.

The study demonstrated that in cases where higher levels of HIV-related services among MSM were available, it led to an overall decline in the epidemic of the general population.

These findings make the argument clear and simple: even in countries with generalised epidemics, addressing prevention and treatment needs of MSM plays an important — if not vital — role in reducing the general population’s prevalence.

One would hope that in two years’ time when the International AIDS Conference reconvenes in Washington, DC, MSM will be given even more attention, as these epidemics cannot be ignored if we truly want to see a decline in the global epidemic.

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