Wednesday, August 6, 2008

AIDS Prevention Focus Returns to Gay Men at Mexico Conference

Shannon Pettypiece and John Lauerman - posted August 4

Original link here

[picture taken in the Global Village at AIDS 2008 - new IRMA friends from Cameroon]

Discrimination against men who have sex with men must end, and countries must gear up prevention programs against AIDS in this high-risk group, the secretary general of the United Nations said yesterday.

Speaking at the opening ceremonies for the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, UN chief Ban Ki-moon was one of several world leaders and health officials who spoke about the need for targeting the epidemic among homosexual men.

Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organization's China unit, said health officials in all nations, including the U.S., need to acknowledge setbacks in a group that pioneered the earliest response to the disease. In the U.S., infections among gay men have risen 75 percent in 15 years, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

``We need to engage them, we need to take care of them, we should not forget about them,'' Chan said, referring to the homosexual community worldwide. Mexican President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, former Botswana President Festus Mogae and President of St. Kitts and Nevis Denzil Douglas each called for the end of discrimination against gay men in a news conference at the meeting.

Mogae and Douglas said they'll work with leaders in Africa and the Caribbean to create new prevention programs.

More than a quarter of gay men in these regions, including Jamaica, Kenya, and Ghana, are infected, according to the United Nations. Despite a quarter-century of activism and awareness, gay populations have been overlooked because of discrimination and criminalization in some countries, said Peter Piot, the executive director of New York-based UNAIDS, the agency that coordinates care and research.

`Against the Law'

``In many countries homosexual activity is against the law,'' Piot said in an interview at the meeting. ``It is underground and impossible to organize these programs.''

About 33 million people are infected with the AIDS virus worldwide, and 2.7 million of them contracted HIV, the virus that causes the disease, last year, according to a report from UNAIDS. The number of deaths dropped by about 10 percent to 2 million, the report said.

Most of the 179 countries reporting to the United Nations on the epidemic make no mention of the virus in homosexual men, said Kevin Frost, chief executive officer of AmFAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research. AmFAR tomorrow is scheduled to release a report at the conference on the prevalence of HIV in gay men worldwide.

Homosexuality is illegal and punished in many African countries, making it extremely difficult to recognize men at risk and provide them with prevention, Frost said. In low- and middle-income countries, the rate of infection in men who have sex with men is 13 percent, he said.

Broad Message

In the U.S., the government has pushed a broad message targeting everyone, rather than focusing on the hardest hit populations, said Phil Curtis, director of government affairs at AIDS Project Los Angeles. He said there needs to be at least another $1 billion in prevention funding and more precise messaging to address the gay community.

The failure to slow HIV in gay men puts the U.S. alongside countries in Asia and Africa that aren't confronting the disease in this population, Frost said.

``What the CDC data did was illuminate just how poorly we're doing,'' he said today in an interview at the conference. ``We're doing a lousy job of recognizing the depth of the epidemic in men having sex with men, and targeting our resources so we can change the trajectory of the epidemic.''

In the U.S., 72 percent of infections in males are in those who engage in sex with other men, according to AmFAR. Especially hard hit are gay black men, of whom about 46 percent are infected, according to a 2005 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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