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Hub one of six sites in black male HIV study

Talia Whyte | 8/26/2009, 5:22 a.m.

African Americans continue to be hit the hardest by the AIDS epidemic nationwide. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, blacks account for almost half of all Americans living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and they make up nearly half of new infections every year. Roughly one in 16 black men and one in 30 black women will be infected at some point in their lives.

However, health advocates are growing increasingly concerned about one specific high-risk group that research has shown to be most severely impacted by HIV — black men who have sex with men, or MSM. (The term “MSM” is used to broadly identify men who consider themselves gay or bisexual, as well as those who do sleep with men but don’t identify themselves as either, according to researchers.)

Seeking to target that group, The Fenway Institute and the Multicultural AIDS Coalition recently launched the Boston site for Project S.O.S. (Saving Our Selves), which will be part of a national study aimed at examining ways to address the high rates of HIV incidence among black MSM.

“We want to look at the reasons [why the rate of] HIV is so high among black men who have sex with men,” said Ben Perkins, director of the Project S.O.S. initiative at The Fenway Institute. “The hope is that the study will find innovative strategies to reach out to this group, while addressing a variety of needs.”

In addition to Boston, five other cities will participate in the study: New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Boston arm of the study will be conducted over the next two years by the HIV Prevention Trials Network, and is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

In Boston, 400 black MSM will be recruited for the study to identify better strategies related HIV testing, counseling, referrals and peer health navigation. Perkins also said that the study will take a holistic look at the lives and experiences of black MSM, and will encourage the men to also refer their sexual partners to participate in the study.

A December 2008 report released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recommended that the state step up its fight against HIV, especially among gay and bisexual men. The report showed that more than half of HIV infections diagnosed in the state between 2004 and 2006 came in this population, although less than 10 percent of men in Massachusetts admitted to having sex with other men in public health surveys.

For the last five years, the Men’s Action Life Empowerment (MALE) Center, a program of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts, has been a community resource for gay and bisexual men in Boston. Located on Columbus Avenue in the South End, the MALE Center offers information about sexual health, as well as a place where people can seek companionship.

“We wanted to have a storefront center where men could have a sense of community,” said Michael Shankle, the center’s director. “Many of the men who come here may feel isolated in their own communities, so many of them come here needing a social space outside of the bars and clubs. We have found that men don’t have many places to talk about issues affecting them in a nonjudgmental environment.”