Missouri data mirror national trend for HIV/AIDS diagnoses in some categories

Saturday, July 5, 2008 | 5:55 p.m. CDT; updated 4:56 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — A recent national study shows that HIV/AIDS diagnoses are going up for men who have sex with other men while declining for all other at-risk categories.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that the rate of HIV/AIDS diagnoses among Asian/Pacific Islander men aged 13 to 24 who have sex with men increased the most, with a 30.8 percent jump between 2001 and 2006, and diagnoses among black men in that age category rose 9.4 percent. All men who have sex with men in this age category showed increases.

The report noted that it looked at people who had been newly diagnosed with HIV or AIDS in those years, rather than those who had contracted it. CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Ruth said the data is a good indicator of the underlying trend in new infections among young people, because they likely contracted the disease recently.

Missouri data mirror the national data. Although the overall increase from 2001 to 2006 was 7 percent, diagnoses among black men who have sex with men aged 13 to 24 jumped from 16 cases to 51 cases during that time period, a change of 218 percent. And the only type of transmission that jumped other than “adult transmission unspecified” was men who have sex with men.

The national report suggested that HIV/AIDS prevention strategies be “strengthened, improved, and implemented more broadly” to slow or stop the flow of HIV among men who have sex with men.

Ruth said several factors contribute to these groups having higher rates of HIV/AIDS diagnoses.

“As the epidemic evolves, so do the obstacles we have to confront,” she said.

She said while there is no cure for HIV, there is more optimism about treatment among men who have sex with men, which leads to less understanding about the seriousness of the disease.

In this community, there is also the problem of “prevention burnout,” she said. Prevention burnout refers to people getting tired of the large emphasis on HIV/AIDS prevention. And finally, some people do not know they are infected with HIV, which means they don’t know they need to take precautions to prevent transmitting it and can’t seek life-extending medical treatment.

There are also biological reasons for these higher rates, said Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services spokesman Benjamin Laffoon. Anal sex, which is practiced more often among men who have sex with men, is more traumatic to the tissue, which leads to greater risk of transmission, he said.

As for young men, Ruth said their generation often grew up without being personally affected by HIV and AIDS, which can place them at risk.

Laffoon added that socio-economic factors, and especially access to health care, also come into play among the black community in Missouri.

The CDC report stressed the importance of HIV testing, because “after persons become aware that they are HIV positive, most reduce their high-risk sexual behavior.”

The Columbia/Boone County Health Department offers free HIV testing by appointment or on Thursdays for walk-ins. It also offers free STD testing and low-cost or free vaccines for Hepatitis A and B.

Laffoon said funding for these sorts of services mostly comes from federal grants which are sometimes matched by state money. A federal program called the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program provides funding to the state as well as others, such as local care providers. White was a teenager with hemophilia who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. He contracted the disease through a blood transfusion to treat his condition. He died in 1990.

Laffoon said the state works to reach out to minorities who are affected most by HIV/AIDS, specifically, men and women of color, men who have sex with men and people aged 13 to 25.

Bill Monroe works for the city as a public health nurse for Columbia and Boone County. He said the city works to reach out to those at risk, especially the African-American community.

“We’re trying to step it up,” he said.

To spread awareness, he does things like administer free HIV tests and teach classes about STDs in prisons and high schools. As a public health nurse, about half of what he does involves HIV outreach.

Those infected also find help from Rain, a mid-Missouri organization that calls itself an “STD prevention resource,” provides education and help for those infected with HIV and Hepatitis C.

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