Nearly one in five gay and bisexual men in a study of 21 U.S. cities has HIV with almost half of them not knowing their status, according to a new study published today by the Centers for Disease Control & Protection. And those hardest hit, according to the study, are men of color and men under the age of 30.

Nearly 1 in 5 gay, bisexual men in 21 major cities are HIV positive; half don’t know status

The study, published today in the CDC’s Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, shows that 19 percent of men who have sex with men are HIV positive and 44 percent of those men do not know they carry the virus.

Cities participating in the study were: Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Nassau-Suffolk (NY), New Orleans, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, San Juan, Saint Louis, Seattle and Washington, D.C.

“This study’s message is clear: HIV exacts a devastating toll on men who have sex with men in America’s major cities, and yet far too many of those who are infected don’t know it,” said Kevin Fenton, director of CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, & TB Prevention, in a statement.

“We need to increase access to HIV testing so that more MSM know their status, and we all must bring new energy, new approaches, and new champions to the fight against HIV among men who have sex with men.”

The study was conducted in 2008 with 8,153 gay and bisexual men participating in the 21 cities as part of the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System, a tracking system for the disease. NHBS examined HIV prevalence and awareness of HIV status among this group of men and regularly “monitors HIV testing, risk behaviors, and access to prevention services among at-risk populations in cities with high numbers of persons living with AIDS,” according to a press release.

The major findings of the study show, according to a press release about the study:

•    Among racial/ethnic groups, black men who have sex with men (MSM) with HIV were least likely to be aware of their infection (59 percent unaware, vs. 46 percent for Hispanic MSM and 26 percent for white MSM).

•    While young MSM (under age 30) had lower HIV prevalence than older men, they were far more likely to be unaware of their HIV infection.  Among MSM aged 18-29 who had HIV, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) were unaware, versus 37 percent for men age 30 and older.

•    Among young MSM, young MSM of color were less likely than whites to know they were HIV-infected. Among HIV-infected black MSM under age 30, 71 percent were unaware of their infection; among HIV-infected Hispanic MSM under age 30, 63 percent were unaware. This compares to 40 percent of HIV-infected white MSM under age 30.

Factors contributing to why young men may not know their status include: they may have been infected more recently, don’t believe they are at risk, haven’t had as many chances to get tested or have come to believe that the advances in HIV/AIDS treatment and care reduces their risk of becoming infected, according to the CDC.

Discrimination and socioeconomic factors are particular challenges young gay and bisexual men of color face, such as poverty, homophobia, stigma and limited health-care access, the CDC reports.

“For young men who have sex with men – including young men of color who are least likely to know they may be infected – the future is truly on the line,” said Jonathan Mermin, director of CDC’s Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, in a statement.  “It is critical that we reach these young men early in their lives with HIV prevention and testing services and continue to make these vital services available as they become older.”

National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is Sept. 27

The study is released before Sept. 27, which will the third annual National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.

Fenton released a statement about the new CDC study, saying the numbers are “stark” and gay and bisexual men must make sure to be regularly tested as perhaps one of the best ways to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“While the numbers are stark, we cannot allow gay and bisexual men to believe that HIV infection is inevitable,” he said.

“Testing is important to stop the spread of HIV, and all HIV-negative MSM (regardless of whether they think they are at risk or not) should be tested for HIV every year. MSM who are at increased risk, such as those who have multiple or anonymous partners, should be tested more often (every three to six months.)  In addition to testing, we have effective prevention interventions at our fingertips, yet far too many MSM do not have access to these programs.  That is unacceptable. We can, and must, do more,” Fenton added.

Positive Impact of Atlanta is offering free HIV testing and other services to recognize National Gay Men’s HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Click here for the Facebook event information.