HIV continues to take a heavy toll in the southern United States. Southern states represent 33 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44 percent of people living with an HIV diagnosis and 50 percent of new HIV diagnoses in 2014. Due to these persistent HIV-related disparities the prioritization of cost-effective, scalable interventions in the South is crucial.
Within the South, African Americans continue to be severely affected by HIV. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), African Americans accounted for 54% of new HIV diagnoses in the South in 2014, and Black gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (MSM) accounted for 59% of all HIV diagnoses among African Americans in the South. In fact, more than 60% of Black MSM diagnosed with HIV in the United States in 2014 were living in the South.
In response to these challenges, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) HIV/AIDS Regional Resource Network Program (RRNP) held a forum focusing on racial and ethnic minority gay and bisexual men in the South. The regional forum brought together staff from state health departments in HHS Regions 3, 4, and 6 to identify opportunities to increase regional coordination of HIV prevention and treatment efforts focusing on MSM of color; share best and/or promising practices and lessons learned from efforts serving MSM of color; and discuss barriers to the planning, implementation, and delivery of HIV/AIDS services for MSM of color as well as strategies for overcoming them.
Among the key topics discussed by the participants were the need to increase the proportion of MSM of color living with HIV who achieve viral suppression, and the need to scale up pre-exposure prophylaxis – or PrEP – for those who are uninfected but at high risk for HIV. The participants also reinforced the ongoing need for workforce development, oral health care, food/nutrition services, and transportation to support people living with HIV to remain engaged in medical care.
There were excellent presentations to inform discussions on health equity and access to HIV services for racial and ethnic minority MSM in the South. These included an opening address by Dr. Arlene Lester, Region 4 Minority Health Consultant, about the National CLAS Standards and how they can help inform, guide, and facilitate culturally and linguistically appropriate health services for MSM of color, and a presentation by Dr. Peter DiMartino, Center Chief of HIV Prevention and Health Services for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, on the critical role that stable housing plays in helping individuals access HIV medical care and stay adherent to treatment.
Ms. Shante Miller and Ms. Regina Waits, the Regional Resource Coordinators in Regions 4 and 6, served as the forum’s co-organizers. “The gathering was highly interactive,” noted Ms. Miller. “Participants had the opportunity to hear from other health department representatives in states with similar issues and demographics so that they could learn from each other’s successes and avoid implementing efforts that have been shown to be ineffective.”
The southern forum was part of RRNP’s ongoing efforts to help achieve a more coordinated and effective national response to the HIV epidemic. Funded by the Secretary’s Minority AIDS Initiative Fund (SMAIF), the RRNP works at the regional level to provide technical assistance to HIV stakeholders to help increase access to HIV prevention and care services and improve health outcomes for racial and ethnic minority populations.