Gay men still bear burden of HIV epidemic

Gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men continue to suffer disproportionately high burdens of HIV infection around the world, a new study shows.

The findings hold true in countries of low-, middle-, and high-income status.

“…it’s painful that the history of AIDS is looking like its future.”

The research, published in The Lancet, comes four years after the same Johns Hopkins University research team laid out an ambitious plan to curtail HIV epidemics in gay men, setting targets for policy reform, funding, and improvement in effective HIV prevention and treatment services. Their recommendations included expanded access to pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), which has been highly effective in reducing HIV transmission.

“While HIV rates have flattened overall in recent years, we’re really concerned that the HIV epidemic is continuing among gay men and we’re going in the wrong direction,” says study leader Chris Beyrer, professor at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health and president of the International AIDS Society.

“It’s a tragic situation and it’s painful that the history of AIDS is looking like its future, but that’s actually where we are. But the first step in taking on a problem is recognizing and articulating it, and we’ve really done that here.”

Beyrer will oversee the 21st annual International AIDS Conference July 18-22 in Durban, South Africa. Failure to meet the needs of gay men will be a topic at the meeting.

PreP works but can be tough to get

HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was and many infected people are living long lives, controlling the virus that causes AIDS with antiretroviral treatment. But while new HIV infection rates are falling among heterosexual men and women in many countries, that is not the case with gay men.

Beyrer and his colleagues analyzed medical research published from January 2007 through October 2015, to identify which elements of their call to action from 2012 had been achieved. They found a few successes.

3 reasons young gay men don’t get tested for HIV

A new $100 million investment fund from the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been set up for key populations affected by the virus, including gay men and other men who have sex with men. Several nations have either approved or initiated PrEP projects to facilitate its use by gay men after research studies have proven its effectiveness in preventing HIV infection.

But for the most part, Beyrer says, the failure to get PrEP to the people who need it most—those who are HIV negative and are at high risk of infection—and the backsliding in terms of civil liberties for the gay community in nations such as Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda have contributed to the continued high HIV rates among gay men.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, estimated that in the United States a 20-year-old gay black man has a 50 percent chance of becoming infected with HIV in his lifetime.

While PrEP is available in the United States, Beyrer says it is accessible only when people have health insurance to pay for it, and there are real racial and economic disparities when it comes to who actually gets it. In low-income, predominantly minority communities—particularly in the South, where in most states Medicaid has not been expanded to provide wider health coverage—epidemics continue, he says. He says the United Kingdom refuses so far to cover PrEP, despite evidence of its effectiveness.

Politics and epidemics

And despite its availability in poor nations for pennies on the dollar, Beyrer says the politics of providing medical care to gay men are difficult in many countries. While many nations have made great strides in the past four years in terms of gay marriage, in other nations sodomy remains a crime and other discriminatory policies remain in place, making even getting tested for HIV a potentially dangerous ordeal. In Russia, for example, HIV information websites have even been shut down in the wake of new propaganda laws.

pride parade in Moscow
Russian police detain a gay rights activist during an attempt to hold the unauthorized gay pride parade in 2011 in Moscow. (Credit: kojoku /

“Stigma and discrimination continue to play a very big role in these epidemics,” Beyrer says. “In many countries, these men are just not welcome in health clinics and the fear of discrimination stands in the way of not only treatment, but even just the testing that can go a long way toward stemming the spread of disease.”

Beyrer sees some good news on the horizon. He expects Mexico and other nations such as Argentina and the Netherlands to expand the use of PrEP. He says he hopes to see some nations repeal their anti-gay laws.

“The global epidemic of HIV in gay men is ongoing and efforts to address it remain insufficient,” he says. “This must change if we are ever to ever truly achieve an AIDS-free generation.”

The Johns Hopkins Center for AIDS Research, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research supported the work.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

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