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In keeping with the overall theme of AIDS 2012, Thursday morning’s plenary session focused on “turning the tide” of HIV among vulnerable popularions, including men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers, intravenous drug users, as well as the expansion of testing and the use of antiretrovirals to treat the virus.
But it was Dr. Paul Semugoma of Uganda who provided the most powerful message: MSM exist everywhere, in every nation, and success in combating the HIV pandemic depends on addressing the virus’s impact on this population.
“We are able to turn the tide, but there are barriers to progres,” Semugoma said. “In the fourth decade of the AIDS pandemic, we still have countries that do not have statistics on MSM. What is the problem? They are ignorant, and they are in denial.”
Semugoma’s speech highlighted the societal and political situation in his native Uganda, where homosexuality is criminalized. He also made indirect references to other countries where gays may be persecuted. Semugoma asserted that the criminalization or stigmatization of MSM “due to imported homophobia” only drives the HIV epidemic underground by discouraging MSM from getting tested or seeking treatment out of fear.
For example, he said, in Uganda, some health professionals never ask patients about their sexual orientation, which means they may overlook potential health risks, resulting in some at-risk patients possibly never getting tested or being treated for HIV. Semugoma said because these populations are essentially invisible, they rarely receive the amount of funding needed for biomedical and behavioral interventions to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. Only by addressing the homophobia in society and institutions, and dealing directly with MSM, Semugoma said, will countries be able to reduce the prevalence of HIV, as this population bears the greatest HIV burden, in both developing and developed countries.