In response to skyrocketing HIV prevalence rates among gay men and other men who have sex with men (MSM) around the world, global health leaders have called for an end to the human rights abuses against MSM that contribute to HIV vulnerability. The call came on Saturday at BE HEARD, an all-day pre-conference event hosted by the Global Forum on MSM & HIV (MSMGF) to address soaring global rates of HIV among MSM.
The event showcased presentations from more than 100 of the world’s top experts on the health and human rights of sexual minorities. With over 500 attendees from more than 80 countries, the event was the largest gathering of its kind.
The opening plenary featured the unveiling of a groundbreaking Johns Hopkins—World Bank global survey of HIV epidemics among MSM in the year 2010. The study indicated HIV prevalence rates as high as 21.4% in Malawi, 13.8% in Peru, and 23% in Thailand. The data reveals the current state of the HIV epidemic among MSM to be characterized by ongoing epidemics in low and middle income countries, resurgent epidemics in high income countries, and the discovery of new epidemics in areas that previously had no data.
“We have gone full circle,” said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director at UNAIDS, speaking at the opening plenary address. “Our vision of zero AIDS will never see the light unless we end criminalization of people by their sexual orientation.”
The study also showed that higher levels of HIV-related services among MSM would lead to overall declines in the epidemic in the general population.
“There has never been such an assemblage of data in the field of MSM and HIV before,” said Stephen Lewis, Co-Director of AIDS-Free World.
“By incorporating MSM into the broad treatment network, we are serving the objectives of the entire population. It makes it 10 times harder for those in the realm of MSM to be isolated, marginalized in the response.”
Stigma and discrimination was highlighted by many of the speakers as a key factor in the rapid spread of HIV among MSM. “As long as gay men are a target of hate, arrest, detainment, and service denial, we will never win the fight against AIDS,” said Michel Kazatchkine, Executive Director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, during opening remarks.
The program offered twenty-six separate breakout sessions that addressed a wide array of the most pressing health and human rights issues facing sexual minorities today, including the criminalization, biomedical prevention, and HIV among MSM in low- and middle-income countries.
“The workshop sessions throughout the day provided stimulating insight into the various regions’ work and programs,” said Ken Moala, one of the conference’s participants from Samoa. “It helped me to prepare to be proactive as an MSM Transgender activist from the Pacific this week.”
This was the third time that the MSMGF has held an MSM Pre-Conference preceding the International AIDS Conference (IAC). The MSM Pre-Conference was created in 2006 in response to a shared concern that MSM issues are largely invisible at the IAC. Unfortunately, the event remains as necessary as ever, with only two percent of all sessions at this year’s IAC to specifically address HIV among MSM.
The momentum from the MSM Pre-Conference will continue throughout the week of the IAC in the MSM Networking Zone at the Global Village. The Zone features a full schedule of programming, including sessions on ARV-based prevention among MSM, human rights violations and homophobia, and essential tools for advocates focused on MSM populations.