For people most at risk of being affected by HIV, the numbers of new cases are consistently going down, however, one group remains an exception to this trend — men who have sex with men.
James Diemert, gay men’s HIV prevention worker at The AIDS Network, says that when it comes to HIV “gay and bisexual men’s numbers have pretty much plateaued and continue to represent about half of all new cases in Ontario.” While that statistic isn’t exactly cause for celebration, Diemert notes there are a lot of positives to focus on today.
Getting tested is easier than ever before. Results that used to take six months to get are now being completed in just a few weeks. Further, prevention methods such as PReP are making great strides, but educating the public can be challenging.
“When I tell guys there is a pill they can take that prevents them from getting HIV they are often either blown away or suspicious,” Diemert says. “A lot of them have been given inaccurate information about it being ineffective or dangerous.” This makes the work The AIDS Network does to promote awareness that much more vital.
Most new cases of HIV are coming from incidents when men have sex without knowing their status, which is why getting tested needs to be a priority. Services like The AIDS Network’s bathhouse program are making testing even more convenient. Twice a month, workers from Hamilton Public Health and The AIDS Network are at Karel’s Steam Baths and Central Spa in Hamilton providing rapid and anonymous testing.
“We are fortunate to have amazing community partners like the Hamilton Public Health Services and both Karel’s Steam Baths and Central Spa. They have been so welcoming and accommodating,” Diemert says.
“We are also appreciative of the staff at AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT) who provided training for us.”
One of the biggest obstacles The AIDS Network faces today is stigma surrounding HIV positive men. “It’s especially frustrating,” Diemert says. “Because a guy who knows he is HIV-positive is also probably connected to care, and if he is virally suppressed through his medication he is very unlikely to transmit HIV to anyone else.”
With the modern treatments available, The AIDS Network is seeing HIV-positive men living long and happy lives. There’s still a lot of work left but Diemert is optimistic. “It’s really unlikely that a guy who is undetectable will transmit HIV to sexual partners, and so I think we are getting close to a point in combating stigma where guys are starting to realize that it is the safest it has ever been to hook up with poz guys.”