June 13-19 marks National Men’s Health Week, providing an opportunity to encourage men to prioritize the health of their body and mind. Celebrated in June every year, this awareness week can serve as a reminder for men to check in with their health by:
- Getting a regular checkup, especially to screen for high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as for hepatitis C if they were born between 1945 and 1965;
- Refreshing their memory on signs and symptoms of sudden-onset health conditions like heart attacks;
- Reassessing their diet to make sure they are eating healthy and nutritious foods; and
- Considering their mental and emotional health, especially for any signs of depression or anxiety.
Men’s Health Week also provides an opportunity to draw attention to diseases that impact some men disproportionately. For example, rates of syphilis among men have risen dramatically in recent years, primarily among men who have sex with men (MSM). In 2014 alone, MSM made up 83% of the cases of primary and secondary syphilis (the earliest and most common stages of the infection) among males in which the sex of the partner was known. Syphilis is usually sexually transmitted and, as a bacterial infection, is treatable with antibiotics. Still, MSM who are sexually active should test frequently for syphilis because while it is treatable, reinfection can easily occur.
Another important reason to test frequently for syphilis is that having the disease can significantly increase the risk of acquiring HIV during sex with an HIV-positive partner. Syphilis often causes sores or broken skin to develop in the genital area, acting as a gateway to allow HIV to more easily enter the body. In fact, if an individual has syphilis, they are 2 to 5 times more likely to acquire HIV – another disease that significantly impacts men and has been a longstanding burden among MSM, whether they identify as gay, bisexual, another term, or no term at all. The virus is usually transmitted through sex; anal sex without a condom is especially risky, and in part explains why MSM have high rates of HIV infection compared to other groups.
Traditional HIV prevention methods, such as using condoms consistently, limiting sexual partners and not engaging in anonymous sex or sex with a partner whose HIV status is unknown, are still effective. In the last several years, however, there have been significant developments in new prevention approaches. While these approaches do not replace traditional prevention methods, they still dramatically reduce the risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV.
For those who are HIV-positive, evidence has shown that maintaining an undetectable viral load significantly reduces the likelihood that HIV will be transmitted. Reaching an undetectable viral load is achieved by adhering to the prescribed treatment regimen, and by working with physicians to tailor treatment to an individual’s needs, to ensure the most effective and appropriate medications are being prescribed in each case.
For HIV-negative individuals, a recent innovation in HIV prevention is PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP is a prevention approach that involves taking a specific antiretroviral (the medication also used to treat HIV) regularly, to protect against HIV infection. Many studies have been conducted on PrEP and the results show the approach to be a safe and effective HIV prevention tool, reducing the risk of acquiring HIV by over 90% when taken as prescribed. It is important to note, however, that PrEP does not protect against other sexually transmitted infections, so it is still important to use condoms and other prevention methods consistently.
Local health departments and providers prescribing or considering prescribing PrEP should check out NACCHO’s PrEP Educational Series. For those who are interested in learning more, visit CDC’s PrEP Q&A for an overview of the prevention approach, as well as information for health care providers and individuals interested in taking PrEP.