Non-Shock of the Week: Housing Improves Health for HIV+ & Other News

This was a big news week for people interested in HIV/AIDS domestically, which is usually rarely covered (and certainly not well) in the press. (For those of you new to this blog, I do a lot of work in HIV/AIDS prevention and policy as an activist/community organizer and writer.)

  1. The biggest, and most non-shocking of them all was the release of results from two major demonstration projects that showed if you give people with HIV access to affordable housing, they are much more likely to have fewer emergency room visits, fewer opportunisitic infections, adhere to treatment, and a host of other benefits. READ MORE.
  2. Also since this was the Black Church Week of Prayer on HIV/AIDS, a few editorials came out in newspapers. And I guess some people prayed about it. Columbia, SC’s The State produces an opinion piece that is high on blame-filled righteousness, and low on structural issues, which we KNOW for a fact are driving the epidemic in Black communities: “While there’s a dire need for more government funding for treatment and education, all citizens, black people particularly, must take responsibility for themselves and help battle this public health crisis, which affects all races, socio-economic groups and genders…People must change their risky behaviors. HIV/AIDS can be prevented. Anyone ever heard of abstinence, for example?”

Really? Ugh. My mom wants me to move to Columbia to be closer to family. I love you Ma, but when I read shit like this, I just can’t.

3. A better op-ed was written for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, by two doctors with the DC based National Medical Association (which represents Black physicians). The offered some concrete advice for Pres. Bush to deal with the domestic AIDS crisis in Black communities: “• Develop a national plan. Despite the fact that this scourge is decimating minority communities in this country, the U.S. has no national plan to deal with the AIDS epidemic. • Appoint a leader. Not only does the U.S. not have a plan, but no one is in charge of the problem. Once a leader is named, community groups, churches, medical groups and others should work together to resolve the most pressing issues. • Focus on resources. While funds are scattered around the country to fight HIV/AIDS in many little pockets across the U.S., the bulk of the money should instead be devoted to African American communities with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS. “

4. The best editorial was written by Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison for the Louisiana Weekly: “We must take time to get involved in our local communities, urging our friends and families to get tested and get educated about transmission modes of HIV/AIDS. We must continue our efforts to ensure that treatment is accessible to all those who are currently living with HIV. It is essential that we see this crisis in its broader context if we hope to slow the spread of this epidemic in our communities. I also believe we must take a hard look at other factors that the experts tell us contribute to these high rates of infection among African Americans: economics, education, homophobia, incarceration, and faith in government.”

5: Lastly there was a major breakthrough in HIV science, as reported by Science Daily: “By outfitting immune-system killer cells with a new pair of genes, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University transformed them into potent weapons that destroy cells infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Their novel strategy of genetically engineering immune cells to redirect their infection-fighting ability toward killing HIV-infected cells could lead to an entirely new approach for combating AIDS and other viral diseases.”

NYT Article on Gay Youth and HIV Draws Mostly Misinformed Analysis

(originally written for Prevention Justice.org: The blog of Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project)

Want the good news or bad news first?

I’ll give you the bad news.

Sex columnist Dan Savage whose syndicated column Savage Love is read weekly by millions in alternative weeklies around the country, wrote a blog entry for the Seattle news site The Stranger about the NYT story on rising HIV infections among young MSMs. His blog post was his usual snarky self, but horribly misinformed. He writes:

” so long as gay health educators refuse to level with gay men–there’s no “moderating” your meth use; you can suck too much cock; anal sex isn’t a first-date activity and having anal sex with hordes of anonymous partners, even with condoms, is sure-fire way of contracting HIV–these new campaigns won’t have much of an impact. And so we’ll be reading this story again in a couple of years, yet another story about HIV infection that makes tragic heroes of guys like Javier Arriola and goes on to suggest that straight talk about HIV infection is part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Though Savage is very clever in his use of 4-letter words, he actually contributes to a problem of stigmatizing gay men who are HIV+ and/or in higher risk categories, but he also doesn’t understand the role race plays in all of this. CDC Behavioral Scientist Greg Millett recently published a meta-analysis of studies of Black MSMs and found that “…the assumption of higher risk behavior among black MSM-as measured by unprotected anal intercourse, total number of sex partners, and commercial sex work-was not found to explain the differential in infection rates relative to non-black gay and bi men. This conclusion was based on a review of more than 25 separate studies (Gay City News).”

The Washington Blade’s News Editor Joey DiGuglielmo tries to respond to Savage in their blog, but actually perpetuates a lot of the misinformation Savage spreads in the first place. DiGulielmo writes:

“…what HIV experts have often told me is that gay men who contract HIV in the ’00s almost always have done so by taking needless sexual risks. My friend Dane, who’s also well read on the topic, has even said that any gay man who contracts HIV these days is pretty much always making irresponsible sexual decisions.”

What? “My friend Dane who is well read on the topic?” I know he was writing for the blog and not the paper, but how does that pass as substantive expertise? Is the blog not held to similar standards as the paper? Doesn’t the news editor have access to sources (in DC, land of the policy wonks, to boot!) who could answered some quick questions on this? Even dropping by the CDC’s website would have given more useful information and data.

So that’s the bad news. Literally, and figuratively.

The good news, you ask? Thank GOD for GMHC Executive Director Dr. Marjorie Hill’s letter to the NYT’s story, which sheds some real light on a few contributing factors to the rising numbers.

Young gay men need real support and education before they have been infected and when they are at greatest risk. Research shows that key resiliency factors for gay youth are family acceptance and school-based interventions, such as gay-straight alliances and anti-bullying initiatives.

Sadly, when the New York City Council passed the Dignity for All Students Act ensuring these protections, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed it. When the Council overrode his veto, Mr. Bloomberg chose not to carry out the law.

Our political leaders bemoan the continued spread of H.I.V. Yet when faced with real opportunities to address homophobia and other root causes of the epidemic, these same leaders fail us. It’s time that we recognize antigay bias for the public health threat that it is and seek its eradication.

All this could have been avoided if the original news story had gone one step further in explaining the structural interventions that would be useful for young Black and Latino gay men, and less stigma and blame.