A study released at the end of September by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows serious shortfalls with respect to education and awareness relating to HIV among the most at-risk portions of the American population. With a group of 431 gay and bisexual men participating, a relatively small sample, the numbers reported were still enough to raise concerns about the amount of information being disseminated to this group which represents 66 percent of new cases appearing nationally. Additionally, the findings of the study indicate that men in this group demonstrate a level of apathy not seen since the public first became aware of the HIV virus 33 years ago.
The study was conducted specifically to evaluate the knowledge, attitudes and behaviors of gay and bisexual men as they relate to HIV and identify factors which may be contributing to the increase of new cases in this population. The results indicate that only one third of the men participating even knew that the number of new cases was on the increase. In fact, 20 percent of respondents indicated that they believed the opposite was true. Also concerning researchers was the fact that 51 percent of the men did not believe that HIV was a significant issue in their lives. Coupled with the fact that 56 percent indicated that they did not feel particularly concerned with becoming infected, fears are that if this is a truly representative sample there may be cause to believe that the upswing in new cases could increase even more dramatically.
One of the most serious shortfalls made apparent by the study is in communication, particularly with respect to discussing HIV with friends and partners. Only 50 percent indicated that they ever discussed the topic with casual partners, the number only increasing slightly for those in long-term relationships. Even more concerning is the fact that more than half of the participants reported that their doctors had never recommended that they be tested. Whether indicative of a lack of information being provided to the physician or a reluctance to talk about the issue on the part of health care providers, a trend in failure of communication at the most crucial point of contact is an issue that educators may need to pay significant attention to when planning a response to the information in this study.
Given the advancements in antiretroviral (ARV) therapies, to the point where patients consistently taking an appropriate ARV can lower the possibility of transmitting the virus as much as 96 percent, the number of new cases logically should be waning rather than increasing. The fact that is not points back to the issue of communication. Not even half of the men knew about the need for ARV treatment and just a quarter knew that a new medication had been approved for HIV prophylaxis for people at higher risk of contracting the virus. The lack of information indicates a considerable need for targeted education for these at-risk communities. The fact that only 28 percent of those who have tested positive are actually on an ARV makes it clear that the failure of education is lacking at the point of testing as well. While not a large enough sample to provide a truly comprehensive picture of the situation regarding HIV awareness in gay and bisexual men, the study does identify enough serious shortfalls to be actionable without waiting for another.
By Jim Malone