A Minnesotan diagnosed with HIV at age 17 shows challenges facing those trying to stem the tide.
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- While visiting family in Texas, Jay, then a 17-year-old Minnesotan, began feeling ill. He had pain in his abdomen, fevers and chills.
He returned to Minneapolis to get care and was diagnosed with pneumonia, which sometimes accompanies HIV/AIDS.
Curious, he asked for an HIV test, his first. It came back positive.
"I was really depressed," said Jay, now 19, who described his life to the Star Tribune on condition his full name not be used.
In many ways, Jay illustrates the challenges facing experts who work with gay and bisexual black men in Minnesota and around the country who are rapidly becoming the epicenter in the fight against AIDS.
A new study of 1,553 black gay, bisexual and transgendered men in six U.S. cities suggests that new infection rates were 50 percent higher than other studies have found among their white counterparts -- and three times higher among black men under age 30.
The preliminary results were released at the International AIDS Conference in Washington. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey of 48,000 new HIV cases in 2009 showed 44 percent occurred among black men and women, who account for about 14 percent of the U.S. population. The infection rate in black males was more than six times than in whites.
Black men who have sex with males "are engulfed in a raging ... epidemic," Phill Wilson, founder and executive director of the Black AIDS Institute, said at the conference.
By age 20, black gay and bisexual men have a 12 percent chance of being HIV positive, according to an institute study.
Sex at age 14
Jay started having sex with men at age 14, and by the time he got his HIV diagnosis, he'd had about 50 partners. He rarely used protection and he doesn't know who gave him the virus.
When he got the results, Jay said, he wasn't surprised.
"There is a sense of fatalism, that it's going to happen sooner or later," said Peter Carr, the manager of the HIV/STI section at the Minnesota Department of Health.
Jay used to think he could tell who had HIV by how a person looked. That often-dangerous misconception, Wilson said, is not uncommon because of a lack of education about HIV. About 70 percent of men ages 18-24 who have sex with men don't know they're HIV-positive, according to the CDC.
In schools, education mostly focuses on abstinence until marriage, but "marriage isn't an option for them. ... You've lost them," said Wilson, who's been living with HIV for 32 years.
Black gay and bisexual men also face other barriers such as homelessness, poverty, unemployment and lack of access to health care and education.
Jay has health insurance through his mother, but he has not finished high school. He said it was hard to focus on school after he got his diagnosis. An aspiring model, he also often skipped classes to attend photo shoots and casting calls.
Jay's dream is to move to New York City to study design. He plays piano and guitar and wants to use art and music to inspire young people. He's toyed with writing a song about HIV/AIDS but fears the lyrics will flag his status.
That fear sometimes prevents him from disclosing his HIV status to his partners. He says he always uses protection and understands he may be putting others at risk. But he worries he may be rejected or ostracized because many people are "creeped out by HIV."
Jay is a model patient, said Valerie Smith-Brown, his case manager at the Youth and Aids Projects, a nonprofit organization that serves young gay and bisexual men in Minnesota. He takes his medication every day, which has lowered his viral load to almost undetectable levels. But many, especially those who also use illegal drugs or are homeless, don't take their medications regularly, she said.
For Jay, his diagnosis was a wake-up call to respect himself more, he said. Although he still feels depressed from time to time, he's trying to focus on the positive. "I'm trying to figure out who I am," he said.
Daniela Hernandez • 612-673-4088