Men who have sex with men (MSM) in Georgia have some of the highest rates of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) of any group in the state. But many in the community also struggle with depression, fear, stigma and struggles with their faith, which can prevent them from protecting their own health.
At the Georgia Department of Public Health’s (DPH) second annual MSM Symposium on Friday, 130 attendees, including public health professionals, health care providers and MSM health advocates gathered at the Loudermilk Center in Atlanta to discuss how these issues affect the health of the MSM community.
Attendees discussed the heavy burden of HIV and other STDs in the MSM community, but many sessions also focused on issues like homophobia, substance abuse and faith.
“Often, people in the MSM community identify these factors as barriers to addressing health and accessing health care,” said Leonardo Parker, MSM coordinator for DPH’s STD office and one of the symposium’s organizers. “We wanted to focus not just on physical health, but on wellness as a whole.”
In 2010, nearly 40 percent of newly diagnosed HIV cases and 44 percent of new AIDS cases in Georgia were among MSM. The community is also heavily impacted by other infectious diseases, including syphilis and meningitis.
But when it comes to addressing the primary cause of these diseases – sex – many health care providers fall short of expectations, said Rodney Perkins, clinical manager of the Gay Men’s Health and Wellness Clinic at Whitman-Walker Health in Washington, D.C. and a presenter at the symposium.
“Patients often expect the provider to set the pace in the conversation on sexual health,” Perkins said. “But providers also face challenges in having those conversations,” including a lack of time to spend with patients, changing clinical guidelines and limited STD services.
Several sessions emphasized that talking about sex is vital to addressing health concerns of the MSM community. In the symposium’s keynote lecture, Judie Manulkin, Ph.D., a clinical sexologist at Emory University, discussed how sex influences behavior and encouraged openness around the traditionally taboo topic.
But attendees emphasized that it’s equally important to understand the nuanced barriers that keep MSM out of care. One of the symposium’s new sessions focused on the response of faith communities to MSM members and those with HIV/AIDS, a prominent issue for MSM in the South. Patrick O’Neal, M.D., DPH’s director of health protection, said poor mental health is another barrier that gets too little attention from both the MSM community and health care providers.
“We won’t be able to address many of these health concerns until we address the depression, fear and anxiety that keep many patients out of care,” he said.
Victor Cano, a social services technician with the Clayton County Board of Health, said the symposium helped him get a better understanding of what the MSM community needs from health care providers.
“It’s always good to educate yourself so you can understand how your actions may affect your clients,” he said.
Organized by the DPH STD and HIV offices, as well as Fulton County Health and Wellness and the DeKalb County Board of Health, the symposium aims to start dialogue among all those invested in MSM community health. Symposium organizer John Malone said the health of the MSM community depends on better dialogue.
“It’s extremely important to talk about these issues, especially in our state with one of the country’s largest MSM populations,” he said. “We need to find innovative ways to discuss and address these issues.”