by naomi martin
Advocate staff writer
July 23, 2012
Black gay men are routinely at the “back of the line” when it comes to receiving treatment for HIV and AIDS despite being the population most in need, according to a national study released this week.
Local experts say the problem is especially prevalent in metro Baton Rouge area, where black men account for 51 percent of AIDS patients, according to Louisiana Office of Public Health data.
Black people also account for most new HIV and AIDS cases in metro Baton Rouge (87 percent) and in Louisiana (74 percent) while black people account for half of such cases nationwide, according to the latest data from local, state and federal officials.
When seeking treatment, black gay men face more severe obstacles than any other populations, including poverty, unemployment, lack of access to health care, racism and homophobia, Los Angeles’ Black AIDS Institute said in its report “Back of the Line: The State of AIDS Among Black Gay Men in America 2012.”
Although several local experts had not read the national report, they said the problem of black gay men spreading the disease and being undertreated for it, along with other factors, is occurring in the Baton Rouge area.
Sylvia Andrews, assistant director of the East Baton Rouge city-parish’s Division of Human Development and Services, said gay black men are chronically undertreated in metro Baton Rouge. However, she added, Hispanic people and young people are also undertreated demographic groups.
The high incidence of HIV and AIDS among black men who have sex with men contributes to the epidemic affecting the entire black community, including women and heterosexual men, said Timothy Young, director of the HIV/AIDS Alliance for Region Two, or HAART, a service provider for people with HIV/AIDS.
“There are a large number of men who are having gay or bisexual sex and then transmitting it to their female partners,” Young said.
Thirty-four percent of AIDS patients in the metro Baton Rouge area are black women, which is the highest percentage in the state, data from the state Office of Public Health shows.
The Baton Rouge metro area ranks No. 1 in the nation in its rate of new AIDS cases after ranking second the past two years, according to 2010 data released in March by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Baton Rouge has a rate of 33.7, which means 33 out of every 100,000 people were newly diagnosed with AIDS in 2010, the data show.
The CDC uses the U.S. Census Bureau’s Metropolitan Statistical Area to define the Baton Rouge metro area. It consists of nine parishes: East Baton Rouge, West Baton Rouge, Ascension, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, East Feliciana, West Feliciana, Livingston and St. Helena.
Young said black gay men tend to have sex with other black gay men and so their already-high likelihood of contracting the virus skyrockets within that smaller subpopulation.
The high rates are exacerbated by the problem of people waiting too long to be tested, as they often continue to spread the virus without knowing it, Young said.
Once a patient starts anti-retroviral treatment, he is 96 percent less likely to transmit the infection to a partner, he said.
About half of the people who test positive in Baton Rouge have waited so long that their diagnosis has progressed from HIV to AIDS, Young said.
Risky sexual behavior and drug use are the leading causes of the disease, Young said, while denial of that behavior and denial of having HIV are part of the problem as well.
Andrews said the city-parish currently “promotes the philosophy of ‘treatment as prevention’ and is seeking best practices and funding for traditional prevention and outreach.”
With the city-parish’s high rates, current needs outweigh resources and the city has no direct funding for prevention programs, Andrews said.
“This will be the year we will start writing those grants,” she said, adding they hope to secure funding for education and prevention programs next year.
Darnell Pledger, 25, who runs the HIV/AIDS prevention program at Southern University, said he is astounded by the amount of misinformation floating around the student community.
For example, Pledger said he has met students who wrongfully think they can avoid the disease by engaging in only oral sex. “The simple fact is that a lot of people don’t know about the transmissions,” he said.
“You have young students who are just starting to learn about sex, leaving their homes for first time to go to college, whether LSU, BRCC or Southern — they’re away from home and they’re experimenting now,” Pledger said.
The Black AIDS Institute’s national report concerning black gay men also cited “high prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases; childhood sexual abuse or other trauma, hostile home environments and associated disruption in education and disproportionate risk of incarceration” as reasons for the population’s plight.
State officials have said that part of the reason the Baton Rouge metro area ranks high for AIDS cases is because there are four prisons in three parishes in the metro area — Iberville, East Feliciana and West Feliciana.
The state Office of Public Health received a $4 million federal grant that will target former prison inmates living with HIV in the metro Baton Rouge area for two years, agency spokesman Tom Gasparoli said.
The program will provide the former inmates a “link to primary medical care, support services, and educational programs when they are released, in order to reduce or prevent the transmission of HIV to others,” he said in an email.
Gasparoli said he could not immediately respond to assertions by some area nonprofit organizations that the state has slashed its budget for HIV/AIDS prevention programs to zero in recent years. He said the multiple sources of funding for the state’s STD/HIV program made it hard for him to confirm the budget for prevention.