CHICAGO - Today, the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) launched the fourth cycle of Project CHAT, the HIV behavioral survey for men who have sex with men (MSM) in Chicago. Since its inception, Project CHAT has interviewed and HIV tested more than 2,200 men at over 300 venues in Chicago. The data gathered from the interviews has been an essential component of CDPH's ongoing strategy to reduce HIV transmission in Chicago by giving a clearer picture of the epidemic on the ground.
"The CHAT survey was the first time we were able to see the details of the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men across the entire city," said Commissioner Bechara Choucair, M.D. "The information collected is then used to influence prevention initiatives and priorities by CDPH and by our partners across the region."
As the first survey of its kind in Chicago, Project CHAT interviewers have canvassed bars, clubs, parks, churches and other social organizations around the city since 2003, in a calculated effort to gather the most up-to-date information regarding HIV prevention and care utilization and risk behaviors among MSM.
"It changed the way we prioritize prevention," said Nikhil Prachand, Director, HIV/STI Surveillance, CDPH. "The survey has also helped us to identify and respond parallel issues, like Crystal Meth earlier in the decade, and guarantee that resources are allocated properly."
"Project CHAT was the stepping stone we needed to guide more effective prevention programming and bring more community stakeholders to the table," Commissioner Choucair continued. "We moved away from individual messaging to community-level interventions to more effectively address HIV in the African American MSM community."
The 2008 MSM cycle shed a stark, new light on racial disparities in the city. While rates of HIV prevalence were found to be much higher among African-American MSM compared to White and Latino MSM, levels of individual-level risk behaviors, like condom use, and number of sex partners, were no different between the groups.
The Chicago Black Gay Men's Caucus (CBGMC) has worked with Project CHAT for the past three MSM cycles to help identify disparities among black MSM and to assist the overall work of the project including survey design, venue selections and promoting survey findings. In turn, CBGMC uses findings from Project CHAT to shape community discourse and to design innovative interventions for black MSM.
"While decreasing new infections among young black MSM continues to present challenges, we are encouraged by real signs of progress in the communities we serve," said Lora Branch, CBGMC. "Each year, more black MSM know their HIV status, more positive men are seeking care and these men are more likely to be on treatment. Ultimately, these factors will result in less new infections and a healthier community overall".
Project CHAT interviewers are community members themselves and have found huge success building rapport with survey participants and local venue owners.
Five-member teams of trained interviewers will be working in neighborhood venues on randomly selected day and time periods to anonymously survey participants about HIV-related risk behaviors, and their knowledge and use of local HIV testing and prevention services. Each participant is also offered free HIV testing and $50 at the conclusion of the survey. The project plans to enroll at least 500 men by the end of November.
Project CHAT is a part of the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance System (NHBS) funded through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Chicago Department of Public Health's Division of STI/HIV/AIDS works in partnership with the community to use the best public health practices for the prevention and treatment of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and to promote the highest quality services for the health and well-being of those living with and impacted by STIs, HIV and AIDS.