Gay men* account for over half of the people living with HIV in Canada, and more than half of new HIV infections each year. Why is this population so disproportionately affected?
There are several factors that contribute to this reality. Research indicates that some of these factors are linked to issues of homophobia, mental health, and minority stress that may lead to more “high-risk” behaviours, including drug use and unprotected sex. Biologically, unprotected (receptive) anal sex has the highest risk of HIV transmission.
There is also a lack of widespread and easily accessible information about sexual health that is relevant and specific to the unique experiences of gay men, making it difficult for these individuals to apply HIV prevention strategies. This issue and the issue of misinformation are especially significant for gay youth, who, upon initially coming out, are not always aware of the importance of HIV prevention and the different ways of preventing HIV infection, making it difficult for them to negotiate safer sex.
CANFAR has been a proud partner funding the Engage project and its work. Tell me about this project.
Engage exists to perform critical research into gay populations and how these populations have been affected by the major developments in HIV treatment and prevention that have occurred since the 1980s. Focused on Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto (the Canadian cities with the largest populations of gay men and where HIV prevalence is highest among gay men), Engage is collecting data from close to 2,500 gay men, including information on attitudes, behaviours, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). To our knowledge, this is the largest study ever conducted on gay men’s health in Canada. Using data collected through the study, we will also support efforts to pilot several new HIV prevention interventions.
The Engage project is intentional to include community partners. How is the community being involved in this study, and what has their response been so far?
Engage was designed to involve, and be informed by, the communities in which the study is taking place. Local AIDS Service Organizations, community leaders, and gay men themselves have been a critical asset for this project. These groups have been instrumental in survey development and participant recruitment, and will be essential in sharing, distributing, and applying the knowledge produced from the study in HIV prevention and care programming.
The CAHR Conference is an important time for Engage. What value does it bring to the project?
Each year, the CAHR Conference brings together HIV researchers and community leaders from across the country to learn about new research and developments in HIV prevention and care. In Vancouver this April, Engage will have several posters and presentations sharing some of the preliminary findings from the studies. It is important to keep researchers in all fields aware of the ongoing realities of HIV, especially within certain demographics.
The CAHR Conference also provides an opportunity for Engage to hold an annual meeting. Community leaders and researchers will gather to stay connected and share knowledge collectively.
What do you believe will be the overall impact of Engage?
This landmark study speaks to one of the populations most heavily affected by HIV in Canada – gay men. This information will inform policies, programs, and future research required to stop new infections and to properly support those living with HIV. This is achieved by gaining in-depth insight into the needs and issues facing gay men, and by creating strong, replicable programs that respond to those needs and issues accordingly.
*Gay men is used to refer to gay, bisexual, queer, Two-Spirit and other men who have sex with men. As a side note, CANFAR’s BOOM Campaign for ‘young guys who like guys’ addresses a number of these factors, looking specifically at the needs and realities of gay youth in Canada. It has been informed by leading research including support from Engage researchers.
Authored by Cameron Dunkin, CANFAR’s Senior Manager of Research, Awareness Programs, and Office of the President