World AIDS Day in Vancouver was not only a day for reflection for BC’s gay community. It was also a day to plan the next step in the continuing battle against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), as the Community-Based Research Centre (CBRC) hosted the first Gay Men’s Health Summit at UBC Robson Square in downtown Vancouver.
The summit featured a variety of speakers and focused on the continuing increase of new HIV/AIDS cases in BC’s gay community.
“In 1999, there were 105 men who had sex with men who tested positive, and last year there were 183,” said Michael Rekart, director of the STD/HIV division for the BC Centre of Disease Control. “So, the numbers are approaching double. If you look within age groups, you can see the increases are happening across the board. It appears that HIV infections are increasing substantially in gay men.”
The Sex Now Survey, conducted by Vancouver’s Community Based Research Centre (CBRC), gathered statistical information from gay men at Pride events in seven different regions of BC. The study shows that about 75 percent of the gay community uses condoms consistently, with 10 percent having one-time unprotected sex, and 15 percent having repeated unprotected sex.
The study also shows that men in their 40s are significantly more likely to know their HIV-status than are men in their 20s.
One positive note was that BC is one of the most highly tested areas on Earth. According to Dr Terry Trussler, research director for the CBRC, untested rates can run as high as 50 percent in gay communities in the United Kingdom.
An even more startling statistical trend was seen in the BC Centre for Disease Control 2004 Annual STD/AIDS Control Report. That study shows significant increases in chlamydia (208.4 cases per 100,000 in 2004, up from 194.8 the year before), gonorrhea (24.2 per 100,000 in 2004, up from 16.5) and infectious syphilis (7.3 per 100,000, up from 6.3).
In the case of syphilis, the increase was primarily seen in gay men (140 cases reported in 2004, up from 84 in 2003).
A main focus of the summit was not just to educate the public on the latest health trends, but to also look forward to the most promising advances in treating men’s health. Technology plays a huge part in the daily life of everyone in BC, but what does the future hold for technology and health care?
“There isn’t one special tool, but there are a couple of things happening in STDs,” said Rekart. “One of them is rapid testing. The whole movement towards rapid testing and testing at the point of care at the doctor’s office or even in the home, I think that’s an important move in caring for STDs. I think it’s also important that people can take their own specimens. It’s very important in woman’s health, especially for marginalized women.
“They don’t like to have pelvic exams,” continued Rekart. “There isn’t a place to have them sometimes. There is a lot of data recently that show that patient-collected specimens, even for papilloma viruses, are very accurate. I think those two moves, much like home pregnancy tests years before, if they are guided properly, will improve accessibility to health care.”
Mark Rochford, a spokesperson for Totally Outright, a new program focused entirely on gay youth education, spoke at the summit about perceptions of young gay men and how difficult it can be for them to use protection every single time they have sex.
“It is true there are some men who can live for a long time being HIV-positive, but why take a risk?” Rochford asked. “That is not always the case. The reality is that you can take the cocktail and you can exist, but it’s not much of a life.
“It’s not that difficult to put on a condom,” he continued. “Some people think it’s not being as sexy, but you can work it into a sexual situation and have it be sexy. It’s not that hard to do. It’s so easy to be persuaded not to use a condom in a sexual situation. It’s much better to be true to yourself. You will respect yourself a lot more when you leave that situation if you use a condom. There are a lot of people out there that aren’t concerned for your safety and only in having a good time. It shows a lack of concern.”
The summit brought together experts in the health field for a single goal: to communicate the pertinent and pressing issues facing gay men’s health to BC and the world. Eliminating ignorance goes hand-in-hand with eliminating AIDS and other STDs.
“AIDS is still around, and it’s still a big issue for gay men,” Rekart said. “As a matter of fact, the numbers are increasing. I think a lot of people, especially young people, think that AIDS is not so bad and you can treat it. A lot of them probably think there is a cure, which there isn’t, and it’s still a really devastating illness when you have it. Even the treatments aren’t easy. You have to take a lot of pills at different times. Some people can’t take the pills. Sometimes the virus becomes resistant. For those that have taken the cocktail, it’s no fun at all.”
“There is hope, but there is a lot of work to do,” said Rochford.