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New Initiative Aims to Stop Spread of HIV/AIDS Among Young, Black Men

By Mike Sherry, HCF/KHI News Service, February 27, 2012

Two local organizations with long histories in the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS have embarked on a five-year, $1.6 million initiative to stop the spread of the disease among young, black men.

With assistance from the Good Samaritan Project, the Kansas City Free Health Clinic is leading the federally funded effort to test, educate and counsel black men who have sex with men, ages 13 to 29. The program targets Jackson County, Mo., and Wyandotte and Johnson counties in Kansas.

Roberta Esmond, the prevention manager with the clinic, said statistics from the Kansas City Health Department helped spur the clinic to seek the grant, which was part of $55 million the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded to 34 organizations across the country in September.

According to the mid-year data released last summer:

  • Black men comprised more than half of the 43 newly diagnosed cases among males ages 13-34 in an 11-county service area
  • More than two-thirds of those cases involved men who had sex with men.
  • Nearly a third of the 43 new cases occurred in males under the age of 21

“That was the big shock for us,” Esmond said of the under-21 figure.

Requirements of the CDC grant include testing at least 400 individuals annually.

The organizations must also recruit and train at least 90 peer “opinion leaders” from the target community, and over the course of the grant those recruits are expected to have more than 1,200 safe-sex conversations with at-risk individuals. The grant also requires the enrollment of at least 135 men into one-one-counseling.

But with the emphasis on spreading the word throughout the target population, including using a youth advisory board, Ryan Webster said, “The possibilities of the program are endless in terms of how many people we can impact.”

Webster is coordinator of d-Up: Defend Yourself!, a component that adapts basketball terminology to encourage safe sex. The key is crafting age-appropriate and culturally sensitive messages, Webster said, including referencing the Trojan Magnum condom preferred among young, black males.

By developing applicable materials and a targeted message, the KC Free Health Clinic officials said they hope that the outreach effort would help other organizations better serve young black males.

“I think that other safety net providers are going to benefit from this work tremendously,” said Kirk Isenhour, the clinic’s director of marketing and development, “because we are developing a more targeted education effort to really penetrate this community.”

Both the clinic and the Good Samaritan Project have been treating HIV/AIDS cases since the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s, when observers considered it a disease that mostly afflicted white males.

But the demographics of the disease have changed locally and nationally during the past 10 or 15 years, said Ron Griffin, communicable disease prevention manager with the Kansas City Health Department.

“You could just see it coming; there was a second wave that was occurring in people of color,” he said. “And then, sure enough, that is where we are. We are seeing now, for the most part, the cases of HIV in whites have declined. It has declined as well in blacks, but it has not declined as fast.”

For instance, according to health department figures covering 2002 through 2010, the number of new HIV cases among whites in the region peaked at 126 in 2004. For blacks, the peak came in 2007 with 88 new diagnoses. By 2010, the number of new cases among whites still outstripped those of blacks, but the figure had decreased 35 percent from its high point for whites and 19 percent for blacks.

According to the CDC, the annual number of new HIV infections nationwide among young, black men who have sex with men increased 48 percent between 2006 and 2009.

Testing is a key part of a prevention strategy, Griffin said, and that’s where it’s important to connect with at-risk populations by speaking their language, both literally and figuratively. You have to hope that if someone knows they are infected, he said, that they would act responsibly and take precautions against spreading the disease.

Testing is an important first step in changing behavior, Esmond said, noting that the hope was that the numbers required by the grant would be exceeded, though that would be a challenge.

“People may hear your message,” she said, “but they still may not act on that message.”

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