PITCH study to approach Gay men
PITCH study to approach Gay men
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

While HIV/AIDS is not the lethal and ubiquitous problem for the Queer community that it was at the height of the epidemic, the HIV infection rate in King County Gay men is still approximately 400 times higher than in heterosexuals, according to Dr. Bob Wood, director of HIV/AIDS Control for Public Health-Seattle & King County. We still have a problem.

Beginning in early August of this year, Public Health-Seattle & King County will conduct a health study designed to reduce new HIV infections in men who have sex with men (MSM). The Preventing Infection Through Community Health (PITCH) study is a national anonymous survey designed and funded by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, GA. Twenty-one cities nationwide will participate.

The study hopes to reduce HIV infection rates by documenting how MSM protect themselves and others with methods such as HIV testing and condom use. The information will assist health care workers, community based agencies, and the Seattle MSM community to understand current challenges in fighting HIV and help create the most effective HIV prevention interventions in the future, according to a Public Health press release.

Dr. Wood asks, "Why are people not getting tested or not using condoms, or having sex in settings of drug use? This study is designed to give us a better, or clearer, understanding of what people are doing in these target groups and why, so we can clearly target prevention strategies to specific sub-groups."

The surveys will be conducted from early August through the end of the year with a goal of 500 MSM interviewed. The surveys will be conducted in "a number of sites in Seattle where MSM are found," again according to the press release from Public Health. Public Health staff will approach MSM in areas throughout King County asking them to participate. MSM cannot volunteer for the survey in order to insure a random sample of participants.

Interviews last 30-50 minutes and include questions about living circumstances, sex life, alcohol and drug use, use of HIV prevention services, and medical status. Participants my decline any question. Information will be recorded on handheld computers inside a Public Health study van. In addition, anonymous rapid HIV tests will be offered, though not required, and results will be available in about 20 minutes. Participants will be reimbursed and given HIV/AIDS prevention information.

According to Nadine Snyder, Field Supervisor/Project Coordinator for Public Health-Seattle & King County, MSM have the highest rate of new HIV infection largely due to risky behavior. Snyder says, "MSM in their 20s and 30s have the highest new incidence of infection. This project helps us better understand what MSM know, what they don't know, and how they're behaving. That way we can better target messages to specific groups of MSM."

Wood estimates that 16% of MSM in King County have HIV. The percentages are higher for MSM in their late 30s and early 40s, and lower for MSM in their teens and early 20s. The highest new infection rates occur in MSM aged 25-35, the group most likely to engage in sexual activity with younger and older MSM. The county still sees about 100 deaths per year from HIV/AIDS.

The PITCH study is part of a larger program called the National HIV Surveillance Effort. The program targets three populations on a yearly rotating basis: MSM, heterosexuals, and IV drug users. The 2009 study will focus on heterosexual participants and the 2010 study will focus on IV drug users.