The AIDS Network together with Hamilton Public Health Services have launched an HIV-testing campaign to take place in two gay clubs during Pride month. The initiative gives access to rapid HIV testing for men who have sex with men and will be available at The Embassy during the club’s drag night on June 9, 2016, and at Steel Lounge on June 11 during the bear party.
Matthew Lewis, a public health nurse with Hamilton Public Health, and James Diemert, gay men’s HIV prevention worker with The AIDS Network, will be conducting the rapid, anonymous testing at all sites.
“Testing is a lot more accurate and much faster than ever before. It is so important for queer men to know their HIV status,” Diemert says, adding that knowing your status is the first step toward health management and prevention.
Lewis notes that new provincial guidelines encourage rapid testing within priority populations, which includes men who have sex with men.
“Each person who comes for testing has confidential pre-test counselling with the public health nurse to talk about their risk, window period and risk reduction,” Lewis says. Window period refers to the time from exposure to when testing can detect and diagnose infection. For HIV, that period can be anywhere from three weeks to three months.
But thanks to innovations in HIV diagnostic technology, men who suspect they may have been in contact with the virus can now get tested as early as three weeks after exposure. Results take just a few minutes and all testing is anonymous.
“Ontario’s new direction in HIV testing is three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months,” Lewis adds.
The AIDS Network and Hamilton Public Health work closely together to provide access and care to people living with HIV and provide outreach to the community to raise awareness. Both organizations have taken great strides to ensure queer men have access to care and knowledge of HIV and other STIs.
“With modern treatment, people living with HIV can live long and healthy lives and achieve an undetectable viral load, but the first step is knowing what your status is,” Diemert says.
He adds that without the support of the local queer community in Hamilton and the Pride committee, important initiatives like the HIV testing campaign would not be possible.
“I just want to acknowledge that we are so fortunate to have a community here in Hamilton that is so willing and eager to help out with our efforts to reach queer men. The Embassy, Steel Lounge and our Pride committee have been so supportive and we could not do this without them,” he says.
But for men who would like to be tested but aren’t sure they can make it to one of the sites during Pride month, Diemert stresses that any time is a good time to get it done.
“In addition to the regular Public Health STI clinics that offer anonymous rapid HIV testing year-round, a nurse comes to do testing at The AIDS Network on the last Tuesday of every month,” he says. Outreach clinics are also available at both of Hamilton’s bathhouses.
The important thing is that men who have sex with men need to be aware of not only their status, but the options available to them when it comes to managing HIV. “Queer men continue to bear a disproportionately high amount of the burden of this epidemic, so it’s really important that we as a community know the resources out there, not just for testing but also for treatment as well as new prevention options like PrEP,” Diemert says.