[Ed. Note — This is the second in a three-part series exploring new data on HIV infection rates and the work of local activists and prevention experts working to address HIV/AIDS issues on the local level. In the first part, published Jan. 4, we explored new national data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some efforts by local organizations to address rising infection rates among young people. In part two, we discuss local infection rates and the efforts of staffers at the Mecklenburg County Health Department. This issue’s online exclusive, available at goqnotes-launch2.newspackstaging.com/newburden/, explores prevention and sex education efforts in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Part three, to be published on Feb. 15, will discuss the experiences of HIV-positive youth living in Charlotte and the Carolinas.]

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In December, new national data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed a marked increase in the rate of HIV infection among gay and bisexual men and, in particular, gay and bisexual young men ages 13-24. Advocates for HIV prevention and treatment have taken notice of the data in their ever-vigilant quest to educate. In Mecklenburg County, local health officials say they are reaching out specifically to at-risk groups like men who have sex with men (MSM).

“What I think is so great about the efforts here at the health department is that all of our staff work really hard on being inclusive and recognizing diversity,” said Solita Jefferies, syphilis elimination coordinator at the Mecklenburg County Health Department’s HIV/STD Community Services Department.

Jefferies, who previously worked for the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN) as a National AIDS Fund Americorps Member, said she and her other colleagues realize just how important sensitivity to LGBT issues is to their work.

“One of things I’ve experienced as a counselor is that my clients really appreciate that I know some of the jargon that is used in the MSM community,” she said. “It helps them feel more comfortable and helps them better understand some of the behaviors and practices that may or may not be the most safe practices for them.”

Specific outreach to the LGBT community takes a high priority among county health officials, said Mecklenburg HIV/STD Community Services Department Manager Linda Flanagan.

“One of the things we’ve been primarily concerned about is just to identify the populations most at risk,” Flanagan said. “We know which populations are most at risk and we really fashion our testing strategies so that we can reach those people who we think are most at risk. It is a fact that there is a higher rate of HIV and syphilis among MSM. That, for example, is one population group we make sure we are reaching and bringing services to.”

Higher rates among MSM, Mecklenburg County

Flanagan’s assertions are reflected in the hard data.

While the raw numbers have been dropping, from a spike of 208 in 2008 down to 160 in 2010, the proportion of new infections among gays, bisexuals and MSM has been rising. In 2006, just 36 percent of new cases were among MSM. That figure jumped to 44 percent the next year, declined slightly to 42 percent in 2008 and then rose to 45 percent in 2009 before jumping to 51 percent in 2010.

Among young people, the CDC reported that about 18 percent of all new infections in 2010 were among young gay and bisexual men ages 13-24. In Mecklenburg County, young people of all sexual orientations are taking a hit as well. Local 2010 data reveals six percent of new 2010 infections were among youth ages 13-19. The most, at 38 percent, were among individuals ages 20-29.

And, on the whole, Mecklenburg County’s HIV infection rate is among the three highest-ranking counties in the state.

“It’s not surprising we’d have one of the higher rates in the state,” said Flanagan. “This is a large area. People come here, not just from South Carolina, but also from other parts of North Carolina. There’s a lot of traffic in and out of Mecklenburg County. There are just more people here. We are also on the interstate corridors and that can have some impact on the number of people coming in and out of the county.”

Targeted outreach

Flanagan and Jefferies said their department has undertaken specific strategies to reach MSM, including holding testing and awareness events at gay bars like the Nickel Bar and The Woodshed, though bar outreach hasn’t been the most effective.

“We’ve made efforts to do it, but, quite frankly, that’s not been a very successful way of reaching people for testing,” Flanagan said. “There are some clubs in town that are not really very interested in us coming and bringing testing services. There are others who have offered that to us, but we don’t get much response from the patrons.”

Flanagan said the department has better luck with awareness building and passing out brochures with information on testing locations.

Yet, Flanagan’s and her team’s biggest difficulty today is online outreach.

“One of the bigger challenges for us that we haven’t been able to solve yet is really coming to grips with how we can best have outreach on social media,” she said. “That’s where an awful lot of people are hooking up, quite frankly, is on social media. We’re working on that, on how to best have a presence on social media that will bring our services to more people.”

Flanagan said the county has had success reaching gay and bisexual men in places most wouldn’t consider traditional LGBT locations.

The county, for example, holds testing and outreach events at the county jail every week. They also visit homeless shelters and substance abuse centers.

“While those services may not be focused on the LGBT community, the reality is we often have clients that identify themselves to us as MSM in those sites,” Flanagan said.

Community partners

Flanagan said the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte has been the county’s primary partner in targeted LGBT outreach. Center Operations Manager O’Neale Atkinson said his group works hard to ensure community members have access to the weekly testing events and other information.

“We have had community forums and discussions talking about healthy relationships and safer sex,” said Atkinson, who also briefly served as this newspaper’s editor in spring 2012. “We try to implement things like that when we can and providing a space for testing at the Center is definitely our most on-going outreach.”

Each week, as many as a dozen or more people attend the testing events. In 2012, the Center saw a total of 208 people who utilized the free service.

The Center also provides free safer-sex materials like condoms, dental dams and personal lubricants, as well as instructional information on how to properly use them.

Still, Atkinson and other Center staffers want to do more.

“We have actually talked about other things we want to do in the future,” he said, “including some community HIV outreach specifically targeting the Latin American community in Charlotte. We want to reach populations that maybe we haven’t historically targeted and want to try to be more inclusive in our outreach.”

Non-profit staffers like Atkinson depend on the help of the county in providing some services like testing. Atkinson said he’d like to see more people aware of the services.

“I don’t think enough people take advantage of the resource,” he said. “I know there are more LGBT people and just people in general who could come get tested but aren’t.”

At the end of the day, Atkinson said, simply providing the service, for whomever and however many, is a step in the right direction.

“I’m just glad to see we have people coming in and using the resource,” he said. : :

Matt Comer

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.