Who, besides the CDC, didn’t know black gay men needed HIV outreach?

On any given day, the health staff with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation are out making the rounds to nightclubs, community festivals, concerts, and area colleges and universities, any place black gay men are known to congregate.

They and AID Atlanta have been doing this work via Mobile Testing Units for years in an effort to reach those most at-risk of HIV-infections, and thus attempt to lower transmission rates.

AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s mobile testing unit. Contributed Photo: Contributed

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And while budget cuts last year by the Centers for Disease Control certainly slowed AID Atlanta down, it hasn’t stop them.

They know the work is just too important.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted that if current rates continue, one in two African-American gay and bisexual men will be infected with HIV, the virus that causes it AIDS. If you’re wondering how that could be given the success of lifesaving antiretroviral medication, given the decades of research and education, I get it. Dr. David Malebranche, an associate professor of medicine at the Morehouse School of Medicine who has been working with HIV prevention and treatment for the past 16 years, says there are reasons for this. For one thing, Malebranche is a “same gender loving man” and, at 48, he has had nearly his entire life to consider the cost of loving men. He’s seen some things. Even so, his re-introduction to Atlanta’s HIV epidemic in 2000 was like stepping back in time. “It was like being in New York 15 years ago, ” Malebranche said recently. “We would hospitalize people for opportunistic infections that people in New York hadn’t seen in years.” And that in many ways, he said, speaks to the essential issue of why black men who have sex with men have long endured the brunt of the epidemic. In this gay rights movement, which coincided with the HIV movement, people forgot that black MSM are in fact, still black men.

And so when the CDC released its findings last week that black men in the South aren’t being diagnosed enough in traditional health care sites, the folks at the foundation and its partnering agency AID Atlanta were unmoved.

Indeed, for most HIV/AIDS service organizations across this country, the report was hardly breaking news.

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“It’s good to know that the CDC has now recognized what agencies like AIDS Healthcare Foundation and AID Atlanta have long been aware of,” said Imara Canady, spokesman for AHF, a national nonprofit.“None of us think that we will be able to address the HIV epidemic facing gay black men if we expect them to only come to one of our facilities.”

Here’s what’s really mind-boggling about the CDC findings.

It comes less than 15 months after the federal agency denied AID Atlanta’s request for funding, essentially cutting the non-profit’s budget by $350,000, money that was used specifically to target prevention outreach to gay black men.

Not only did the denial come without explanation, it arrived one month after the CDC recognized AID Atlanta for its strong track record providing needed services to thousands of metro Atlantans living with HIV/AIDS.

So go figure.

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According to the CDC’s own statistics, there are 15,000 people in metro Atlanta who are living with HIV but don’t know their status; there has been an almost 90 percent increase of new HIV infections in the African-American community alone, again predominantly gay and bisexual men, ages 13-24; one in two gay black men will be impacted by HIV in their lifetime; Georgia ranks fifth in the nation for new HIV infections and, in metro Atlanta, Fulton and DeKalb counties rank No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the state.

Black gay men discuss the impact of stigma on the HIV crisis at an event hosted by AID Atlanta late last year in Atlanta. Contributed

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As it relates to the newest CDC findings, keep these numbers in mind: nearly two-thirds of all black men diagnosed with HIV reside in the South.

“Although black (men who have sex with men, or MSM) received 6 percent of the HIV tests provided, they accounted for 36 percent of the new diagnoses in non–health care facilities,” the study found.

“Black MSM in the southern United States are the group most affected by HIV, but only a small percentage of CDC tests in the southern United States are provided to this group,” it stated. “Increasing awareness of HIV status through HIV testing, especially among black MSM in the southern United States, is essential for reducing the risk for transmission and addressing disparities.”

Without CDC funding, AID Atlanta was forced to halt its Evolution program, which did outreach to gay black men, and lay off its four staff members.

Had it not been for financial support from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, they would have had to abort that work, according to Canady.

Instead of ending its outreach, AID Atlanta has stepped things up. Considerably.

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The mobile testing units, wrapped with visually appealing images and straight-to-the-point messaging, like “Knockout HIV,” have been a boon.

Inside, a team of trained staff provide rapid, free, 1-minute HIV testing.

“The MTU has proven to be a powerful tool for connecting with key populations, like gay black men,” Canady said.

This month alone, he said, the team has tested more than 1,000 individuals, and they have newly diagnosed 20 with HIV.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This same level of targeted outreach is being led by the team at AID Atlanta, which in addition to testing, also does education outreach at African-American churches, historically black colleges, and area events where black gay men are known to hang out.

And just in the last six months, AID Atlanta launched its Men’s Engagement Network to engage gay black men in a more holistic way. In addition to testing, they offer empowerment workshops, mentoring and social events. The agency was forced to discontinue its previous outreach program when the CDC didn’t renew funding last year.

“Through AID Atlanta’s new M.E.N.’s program, we are working with gay black men, to not only address prevention and testing, but to connect with resources needed to address many of the social and emotional determinants that lead to gay black men becoming positive,” said DeWayne Ford, director of education and prevention at AID Atlanta.

We’ve known for some time now that HIV was hitting the South pretty hard. We’ve also known for some time, because of the stigma still associated with the virus that few people are going to get tested at traditional health care sites.

Imagine what it would be like if all we had were studies from the CDC to tell us that. Better still, imagine what those numbers might look like if nonprofits like AID Atlanta and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation didn’t hit the ground running every day to literally meet people where they are.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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