The US Government's Creating A Health Focused Virtual Reality Game For Gay Men

Still not convinced about virtual reality gaming? Well, the American government is spending money to get you playing, and also to talk about sexual health.

The National Institutes of Health has announced that it is spending over $1.7 million on a virtual reality simulation for young men who have sex with men.

The virtual simulation is called “Tough Talks” and focuses on young gay men gaining the practice they need to tell their partner they have sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

This new game is being created as a joint project between tech and health experts at Georgia-based Virtually Better, Inc., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.

The hope is to raise awareness about safe sex practices and about increasing communications between young MSM. We know this thanks to a study that was conducted by the same team earlier on and published online. That study, which was funded by a grant, says that sixty-percent of young gay men do not disclose their HIV status to first-time sex partners.

"Given the potential benefits and challenges associated with disclosure, there is a need for sophisticated interventions that can assist [men who have sex with men] MSM, with the disclosure process," the grant states. "Virtual reality provides a unique environment for users to practice HIV disclosure."

"Primary outcomes of HIV viral load and condomless anal intercourse (CAI) will be assessed at intervention completion (1 month) and at 6-month follow-up," according to the grant.

That grant sadly couldn’t fund the whole project past the study itself and certainly couldn’t cover the budget for creating the simulation. As such, it’s taxpayers who have unknowingly given over more than $1,788,748 to the project. This started in 2014 with the Obama administration and is expected to continue through May 2020.

According to the Free Beacon and the research paper "‘I Didn't Tell You Sooner Because I Didn't Know How to Handle It Myself': Developing a Virtual Reality Program to Support HIV-Status Disclosure Decisions," first tests with the simulation are going well.

Cisgender male participants who had sex with another man in the past 12 months were placed into focus groups to gather data. That data was then used for creating the virtual conversations and virtual sex partners.

Those virtual characters were then programed to display a wide range of emotions and also conversational skills appropriate for a diverse set of gamers from different racial, cultural, and sexual backgrounds.

The game then had players attempt to disclose their positive HIV status “post condomless anal intercourse” with casual or primary partners. The virtual characters would then react in either a neutral, sympathetic, or negative reaction to prepare gamers for any situation.

Again, the paper says that first test results went well and most of the young gay/bisexual men found the game “visually appealing” and admitted it’s usefulness to real-world situations.

We’ll see how far the study and simulation go in due time.

h/t: Free Beacon, Study 1 & Study 2 by Virtually Better, Inc. et al.

HIV-to-HIV Organ Transplants Are On The Rise

A recent video from NBC is spotlighting the environment that HIV-positive people live in within the world of surgery and transplants.

The below segment produced for NBC WNU spotlights the life and struggle of Reynaldo Garza. 59-year-old old florist Garza is HIV-positive and was looking for a kidney transplant in 2016.

HIV-patients have to wait around a year before being viewed as eligible for a transplant. This is because health officials still consider them a risk. In order to combat this stigmatized environment around transplants, Dr. Peter Stock stared campaigning to legalize procedures where HIV donors can give their organs to HIV recipients.

This isn’t to say that patients who are HIV-positive can’t or shouldn’t receive donations from people who are HIV-negative. Dr. Stock just wanted to better serve HIV-positive people who were being neglected by a biased and unfair system.

“We have an organ shortage crisis in this country and individuals living with HIV are disproportionately affected,” said Johns Hopkins University assistant professor Dr. Christine Durand according to Towleroad.

Eventually, Stock came across Garza who had been living with HIV for 20 years. After hearing what Dr. Stock wanted to do for him, Garza was all in.

“It was an easy decision for me,” said Garza. “I had been very sick for a long time. I was tired of going in for dialysis three times a week, for four hours at a time, sometimes at five in the morning if that was the only slot open. I already had HIV, I had hepatitis C, I had renal failure. I was like, ‘Yes, I’ll sign anything. Just give me an organ.’”

Now two years later, Garza is doing great and there’s a change happening in the transplant system.

Unfortunately, the stigma continues and HIV-positive patients are still being treated as a health risk. That said, more hospitals are accepting HIV-positive organ donation. 25 to be exact, including Yale and Johns Hopkins. Before, there were an estimated 500 HIV-positive organs that were available and unused every year.

“But even if it’s 10 a year,” said Dr. Stock, “that’s taking 10 patients off the waiting list, and we need to use every organ that’s out there optimally.”

Hopefully, advocates like Dr. Stock will continue to look out for HIV-positive patients and change or outright end the stigma towards them.

h/t: NBC WNU, Towleroad

New Jersey Health Officials Say More Than 3,000 People May Have Been Exposed To HIV

Thousands of New Jersey Citizen just got a very unsettling surprise.

The New Jersey Department of Health has released a statement that 3,778 patients at a surgery center may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

Health Officials say that anyone who had a procedure at the HealthPlus Surgery Center in Saddle Brook between January 2018 and September 7, 2018 may have been exposed to these diseases.

Betty McCrabe, an administrator at the Surgery Center, shared that this health warning is a result of a lapse in infection control. Specifically, they believe medical instruments and tools for injecting medicine were improperly cleaned.

Despite how alarming this message may seem, the health department doesn’t want to incite panic. They say that the rate of infection is low and no actual diagnoses have been reported in connection to this issue. Health officials are being extremely cautious and ask that citizens do the same.

If you have received a procedure at the HealthPlus Surgery Center during the times mentioned above, they are desiring you get tested. To assist, the Surgery Center is offering to pay for the medical costs associated with any testing related to this occurrence.

Major NBC Stations and ABC News Stations are taking the recommendations to the airwaves.



h/t: NBC News , ABC News

What US Region Has Highest Number Of HIV Diagnoses? CDC Results Have Us Thinking.

The numbers are finally in for 2017 regarding how HIV diagnoses are distributed across the US and regions.  Around 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the US.  Southern states accounted for more than half of the 38,739 new HIV diagnoses in 2017.

Overall, in the 50 states and the District of Columbia only, the majority of people who receive an HIV diagnosis live in urban areas. But in the South, 23% of new HIV diagnoses are in suburban and rural areas, and in the Midwest 21% are suburban or rural—higher proportions than in the Northeast and West. The South’s larger and more geographically dispersed population of people living with HIV creates unique challenges for prevention and treatment.

Understanding the places and populations that are most affected by HIV allows the federal government to allocate its resources to the geographic areas where they are needed most, while still supporting a basic level of HIV education and prevention for everyone across the country.

Once again, these are statistics on new diagnoses, not the total population living with HIV. 

HIV Diagnoses

In 2017:

  • The South made up 52% (19,968) of the new HIV diagnoses in the US, followed by the West (7,270; 19%), the Northeast (6,011; 16%), and the Midwest (5,032; 13%). US dependent areas made up 458 (1%) of new HIV diagnoses.
  • The rates (per 100,000 people) of HIV diagnoses were 16.1 in the South, 12.3 in the US dependent areas, 10.6 in the Northeast, 9.4 in the West, and 7.4 in the Midwest.

From 2012 to 2016:

HIV diagnoses remained stable in the US, although some decreases were seen in regions with fewer diagnoses.

  • US Dependent Areas: Decreased 27%
  • Northeast: Decreased 17%
  • Midwest: Decreased 6%
  • South: Remained stable
  • West: Remained stable

Forty-four percent of people diagnosed with HIV live in the South, even though the region only contains about a third of the U.S. population.

In looking at the where the largest concentration in regard to cities, here are the rates of HIV diagnoses pre 100,000. 

10. Baltimore, Maryland – 24.3

Aside from Baltimore, all of the cities in the top 10 are in the South.

9. Jacksonville, Florida – 25.1

8. Columbia, South Carolina – 25.6

7. Atlanta, Georgia – 25.9

6. Memphis, Tennessee – 27.6

5. Orlando, Florida – 28.8

4. Jackson, Mississippi – 32.2

3. New Orleans, Louisiana – 36.9

2. Miami, Florida – 42.8

1. Baton Rouge, Louisiana – 44.7

What are the reasons these cities are on the top 10 list?  Just like with everything, there is no one cause for or one cure to a problem. Here are a list of problems highlighted by blackdoctor.org for why these cities may have the highest HIV diagnoses rates in the nation.

  • lack of education
  • tourism
  • poverty
  • rural geography
  • lack of affordable healthcare
  • social stigma - being a part of the ‘Bible Belt’
  • a diagnosed person might not seek treatment due to fear of rejection from the religious community
  • people who have the disease are not aware of it, so they may continue to spread the infection
  • Most people in these regions don’t have access to prevention, treatment, and care programs
  • due to shared needles because of opiate addiction crisis


h/t: blackdoctor.org, www.cdc.gov

Researchers Found A Way To Target HIV Cells For Elimination

A team of French researchers may have found the next step in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

On Thursday, the Pasteur Institute in Paris published a study in the scientific journal Cell Metabolism titled “Cellular Metabolism Is a Major Determinant of HIV-1 Reservoir Seeding in CD4+ T Cells and Offers an Opportunity to Tackle Infection.”

Until now, treatment towards HIV/AIDS has only been able to block the infection from spreading. Researchers from the Pasteur Institute say they’ve found a way to eliminate the cells entirely.

Researchers have yet to find a cure to the virus because they can’t figure out why it spreads to certain cells and not others. Specifically, CD4 T lymphocyte immune cells are the reservoirs that are primarily targeted by HIV. Scientists have yet to figure out the reason why some CD4 cells are targeted by the virus over others.

Researchers at the Pasteur Institute say that they might have figured out why. Their data shows that the glucose consumption of the cells play a key role in why they are susceptible to HIV. The higher the metabolic activity and glucose consumption, the higher the chance of HIV infection to the cell.

If this data can be backed up and verified, it can categorize infected cells and signify a weak point in the virus.

"We have observed ex vivo that, thanks to certain metabolic inhibitors, the virus is no longer able to infect cells and amplification is halted in reservoirs of patients receiving antiretroviral treatment,” noted study coordinator Asier Saez-Cirion.

Again, the study’s data has to be tested with in-vivo (in a living organism) experiments before progressing with possible treatment. That said, this is a promising breakthrough in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Trump Discharges HIV Positive Military Members

The Trump administration has quietly begun to discharge HIV+ soldiers from the U.S. military.

Despite the fact that they qualify for active duty according to fitness assessments and medical treatment, and strong support from their commanding officers, two airmen were informed shortly before Thanksgiving that they were found “unfit for continued military service.”

They are suing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis after receiving the news they were being discharged.

The lawsuit, filed by Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN in conjunction with the law firm Winston & Strawnon,  argues the Pentagon’s decision violates the Constitution’s equal protection clause and federal law.

From The Washington Post:

Both active-duty airmen tested positive for HIV last year during Air Force screenings. After they started antiretroviral treatments, their doctors deemed them asymptomatic and physically fit to deploy, and their commanders backed their continued service. They intended to pursue lengthy Air Force careers after serving for more than half a decade in logistics and maintenance roles.

Last month, however, the two airmen received word that they had been deemed unfit for military service and would be discharged. The stated reason: The U.S. military bans personnel with HIV from deploying to the Middle East, where the majority of Air Force members are expected to go.

Both airmen say they can deploy with no problem as long as they take a supply of medication with them.

According to the CDC, most people diagnosed as HIV+ who take antiretroviral medications on a regular basis find themselves with undetectable viral loads which means the virus cannot be transmitted to others.

One of the airmen told The Washington Post he'd already been deployed to the Middle East twice, and both times his duty didn't require him to leave his base where proper medical facilities were available.

Neither men were given the option of alternative jobs, which they say they would have accepted.

In February this year, the Trump administration announced its “Deploy or Get Out” policy which ordered the Pentagon to identify service members who cannot be deployed to military posts outside of the United States for more than 12 consecutive months and to separate them from military service. 

Because current U.S. military policy labels service members living with HIV as ‘non-deployable,’ they face immediate discharge under this Trump policy.

Since 1991, all HIV positive applicants have been banned from joining the U.S. military. Instinct recently wrote about Navy Cadet Kevin Deese who was discharged in 2014 one month before graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy after a routine blood test revealed he was positive.

Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, issued a statement, which read in part, “It’s disgusting that the Trump Administration is sending some men and women in uniform home for the holidays without jobs simply because of their HIV status.”

“These decisions should be based on science, not stigma,” he added. “Lambda Legal is suing to stop these separations and will not stop fighting until President Trump understands that there’s not a job in the world a person living with HIV cannot safely perform, including the job of soldier.”

(h/t Washington Post, Lambda Legal)

Trump Directive Halts HIV Cure Research, Pleases Religious Right

Scientists are upset with the Trump administration after members shut down research that could potentially lead to a cure for HIV, according to LGBTQ Nation.

A scientist that was responsible for supplying mice that have been modified with fetal tissue to labs that are attempting to find a cure for HIV was informed that the Department of Health and Human services has told researchers to discontinue acquiring fetal tissue. He write that this directive would stop all HIV research in the United States.

The ban on using fetal tissue is something that the Trump administration announced last year and it is now coming unto effect. This will affect many researchers in the biomedical field, as a good number use mice modified with fetal tissue, as the tissue creates an immune system in mice that is similar to that of a human's. 

Republicans in Congress have attempted to put this ban in place for years in order to placate their religious followers as well as their anti-abortion ones. Anti-abortion individuals have also been trying to get this ban in place for years. 

Warner Greene, director of the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure research, said that the research center was ready to proceed with the HIV cure experiments when what he describes as a "bombshell" was dropped upon them. Greene was scheduled to collaborate with another research facility in Montana when this decision came into effect.

Mice are one of the few animals who can also be infected with the HIV virus which makes them perfect for testing for HIV cures. Researchers at the Gladstone Center were planning on testing a potentially viable antibody that would prevent HIV from developing reservoirs, which are cells that are infected with HIV but do not produce the virus. Currently, there are no medications that affect the virus. 

Greene commented that the mice and the antibody were ready to shipped to the Montana facility when this decision came about and that it would take a year to get back to where he was research-wise if he were to be greenlit to continue the experiment. Jermone Zack, a medical researcher who studies HIV at UCLA, said that his lab will have to be shut down because everything he does in the lab involves humanized mice.

In addition to this decision, the Department of Health and Humans Services announced earlier in the year that they announced the creation of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, which is a subgroup of the HHS that is responsible for handling complaints from medical professionals who do not want to perform abortions or treat transgender patients.

If this trend continues, it will become increasingly more difficult for LGBTQ people to receive quality medical care.

Let's hope it won't come to that. 

h/t: LGBTQ Nation

Discharged Cadet Shows Honor and Pride While Fighting US Military's Ban On HIV+ Soldiers

Imagine that your life's dream was almost obtained, but then you were casted out for something you thought would never happen.

Cadet Kevin Deese was discharged from the United States Navy after a routine blood test found that he was HIV-positive.  The 2014 blood test was one month before Deese was to take part in the U.S. Naval Academy's May graduation. Officials told Deese that he would be allowed to graduate but he would not be commissioned.

In an interview with TheBody.com, Deese shared:

So April Fool's Day 2014, I'm eating lunch in the dining hall with my best friend, and a lieutenant I didn't know comes over and ushers me to the commandant's office, which is like the dean of students. "It's not a good reason that you're here," the commandant says, and I start to panic. What did I do? Was I in trouble? I had no idea why. Then he tells me that I tested positive for HIV and my heart just dropped. It was not something I thought I had been at risk for. Then he says that I will not be commissioning as an officer along with my classmates. It was a double whammy -- so much stigma and shame, everything I had worked for and that the Naval Academy had paid to educate me for. So I spoke with the chaplain and the brigade medical officer. "We're not going to abandon you," they said. But really no one had my back. It was presented as very cut-and-dry with no possibility to get a waiver, no process. One of the commandants had prepared talking points for me and had scrawled "not a death sentence" on a Post-It note

We could not imagine the pressure and stress of going through with the graduation and then needing to tell all why you were not continuing with your military career and on top of that, telling them that you were HIV+. 

In a recent Facebook Post, Deese wrote:

I’m a little scared but determined to take additional action by putting out to the world that I am an HIV-positive gay man who’s here for people who don’t feel they can or should be out as being positive – and who’s not here for your HIV stigma, society.

NowThis worked with Deese to put together this video of his story. 

AS stated in the video, Deese, who is gay, has joined an ongoing legal battle to remove this outdated policy. 

  • 1985 - 1st Screening of Military Applicants for HIV screening applicants for HIV in 1985.
  • 1991 - Under George H.W.Bush, the Military Banned HIV-Positive Applicants
  • 2018 - "Deploy, Or Get Out" - Trump's New Policy requires Military to discharge any service member who cannot be deployed for at least 12 months. People living with HIV are automatically disqualified from deployment. 

Best of luck Kevin in your suit against the Government. Your courage is noted, appreciated, and envied. It takes a strong individual to rise above not one but two life changing occurrences all at the same time. 

We know it has been hard and will be hard. Deese recently shared the following on his Facebook page. 

Content warning: Quotes from people with a lot of ignorance and not a lot of compassion. Could be hard for people living with or affected by HIV to read.
"I wouldn't want to be near you at the mall let alone on the field while bleeding to death"
"They dont want your hiv blood on everything your putting others at risk"
"What I don't like about this guy is he's willing to put other people's lives and health at risk. Very selfish!"
"Your a liability"
"Why does he feel so entitled?"
"Get over it."

Thank you to NowThis for sharing my story. I wasn't sure what to expect when I agreed to do this. Maybe reading the comments was a mistake, but it at least confirmed what we've always known: we have a long way to go in educating people on HIV in general (treatment as prevention, transmission risks, etc.) - and obviously specifically in the military context (i.e. people living with HIV currently serve in the military, there are many jobs in the Navy that don't involve getting shot at, etc.).

I'd be lying if I said the personal attacks aren't hard to read, but it makes a world of difference knowing the support I have behind me. Thank you to anyone who's ever voiced their support; it means more than you can know.

But enough about me...happy World AIDS Day to all; may we take a moment to remember all those who died and those who still die today because they cannot access treatment.

h/t: thegavoice.com, thebody.com, Kevin Deese's Facebook Page

Village In India Draining Lake Dry After Finding HIV+ Woman Dead In Main Drinking Water Supply

Villagers of Morab village in Dharwad district of Karnataka are refusing to drink water from a lake that supplies their only drinking water. What is causing this action? It all stared after they found the body of an HIV-positive woman in the lake on November 29th.  She had committed suicide by jumping in the lake last week. After finding the body, the word and the belief spread quickly that the water has been contaminated, causing locals to panic.


The water is apparently one of the few if not THE source of drinking water for residents of Morab.  Unable to put people at ease that the water was not contaminated, authorities took to draining the 36-acre lake, which is about the size of 25 football fields.  The plan is to drain the lake/reservoir/drinking water and refill it with water from the Malaprabha canal, which is now the only source of drinking water and about 3 kilometers away.

“This is unfortunate. We have been telling people not to panic as HIV does not spread through water. But the people are not convinced and they have started draining out the lake,” said Dharwad district health officer Dr Rajendra Doddamani. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) spreads only through body fluids. Outside the human body, the virus cannot survive beyond minutes in air or water. - timesofindia,indiatimes.com

Other health workers state that most do not know that the virus dies when the HIV+ person dies and would only last seconds in the water. The concern and desire to drain the lake is out of fear rather than stigma, ignorance over knowledge. stemming from lack of awareness.

Twenty siphon tubes with four motors tare being use to pump out the water.

Pradeep Hanikere, another villager, said the daily hardship was preferable to drinking water from the lake. “Do the officials drink bottled water if they find dirt or a speck in it? If they can’t, then how can they force us to drink water from the lake where we found the body of a woman,” he said.

Another villager pointed out, “We would have consumed the water if it was the body of a normal person, but the woman died of HIV. There is no other way. The authorities must drain out water and fill it with fresh water to save the lives of villagers.” - timesofindia,indiatimes.com

h/t: timesofindia,indiatimes.com

Black Gay Men 16 Times More Likely To Contract HIV Despite Less Risky Sexual Behavior

A new study released by Northwestern University investigates HIV rates within the intersection of gay and black men.

The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, was conducted on 1015 black MSM (men who have sex with other men) between the ages of 16 and 29 and live in Chicago. These men were asked about their drug use, social/sexual behavior, and their psychological states.

The data found that young black men are 16 times more likely to contract HIV than their young white gay peers. Specifically, the rate of HIV infections is 32% and the rate of rectal sexually transmitted infections is 26.5%. This is despite the fact that young black men report lower rates of sexual risk behaviors, fewer sexual partners, and more lifelong HIV testing.

"We have known from prior studies that this paradox exists—black young men who have sex with men engage in fewer risk behaviors but have a much higher rate of HIV diagnosis," said senior study author Brian Mustanski, PhD, who teaches at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and is also the director of the Northwestern Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing. "Our study illuminates how HIV disparities emerge from complex social and sexual networks and inequalities in access to medical care for those who are HIV positive."

This new data comes at a time when health experts are focusing on the HIV rates within the black community. Many health experts want young black men to get HIV tests more regularly. But with this new study saying HIV rates are high despite regular testing, that earlier advice may not work.

The researchers at Northwestern University suggest that the real problem lies within social networks.

“Overall, young black MSM do not report higher rates of HIV risk behaviors like condomless sex," study coauthor Ethan Morgan, PhD, remarked. "But aspects of their social networks align with increased HIV risk. By learning more about young black MSM's social networks, we can better understand what drives such persistent racial disparities in HIV—and close that gap."

"Their social and sexual networks are more dense and interconnected, which from an infectious disease standpoint makes infections transmitted more efficiently through the group," Dr. Mustanski added. "That, coupled with the higher HIV prevalence in the population, means any sexual act has a higher chance of HIV transmission."