World AIDS Day has changed dramatically in the two decades since it began. When gay men in the U.S. first commemorated World AIDS Day, they mourned thousands of loved ones lost to a deadly virus. Since then, highly effective HIV treatments have transformed HIV from a death sentence to a serious disease in wealthy countries like ours, and now World AIDS Day seems focused on reminding the straight community about the global devastation of the disease.
But the truth is that HIV is still a crisis for gay men. More than 56,000 new infections occur in the U.S. each year. We are the main U.S. population among whom new HIV infections are increasing: Gay men of all colors account for more than half of all new infections nationwide. Young black gay men are at greatest risk. I was one of them 27 years ago when I became infected at age 26.
This World AIDS Day, I urge gay men to take stock of their health. So many of us work to look healthy on the outside: Let’s also spend time protecting our health on the inside. Too many gay men hope they are HIV-negative but don’t know for sure. Too many who are positive don’t know that they are, and may be infecting others. Too many of us worry alone.
Gay men need all the allies we can get in the fight against HIV, and doctors are key partners in the battle. Years ago, when my late partner was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, he did not let fear of his doctor’s judgment of his “lifestyle” keep him from getting the information and care he needed. And the prevention messages his doctor shared with us helped me avoid infecting others after he died in 1985.
Today, doctors across America receive training in how to help keep gay men healthy. But doctors can only do their part if we do ours. This World AIDS Day, make your doctor an ally.
— Make an appointment. If you don’t have a doctor, get a referral to someone who provides care to gay men. Ask your friends who they like and trust. The doctor does not have to be a specialist in HIV care, but he or she does have to be someone you feel you can speak with openly and who you will commit to seeing regularly.
— Talk to your doctor about HIV risk behaviors. If your current doctor isn’t comfortable talking with you about sex or drugs, find one who is. Your life is too important to let any doctor intimidate you.
— If you are sexually active, get tested for HIV at least once a year. Waiting until you have symptoms is too late. For example, many African-American gay men develop AIDS within a year of their HIV diagnosis because they waited too long to get the care they needed.
If you test negative, talk with your doctor about maintaining safe behaviors and get clear advice about how to avoid becoming infected. If you test positive, have your doctor develop a treatment plan or connect you to a specialist who can. And talk with your doctor about how you can keep from infecting others.
I have been living with HIV for 27 years and my medical providers have been key in helping me stay healthy. I see my doctor every three to four months. He reviews my CD-4 count and viral load. He reminds me about prevention — whether I want him to or not! But, I always appreciate the advice, because every ounce of prevention could help save another life.
I urge you to observe World AIDS Day by taking care of your health. As we remember those around the world with the disease and those we have lost, let’s also remember to take care of ourselves.
Jesse Milan Jr., JD, is former director of the Philadelphia AIDS Activities Coordinating Office, chair emeritus of the Black AIDS Institute and vice president for community health systems at Altarum Institute in Washington, D.C.