CHELSEA — Chelsea has the highest rate of HIV infection in the city, according to the most recent numbers released by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The neighborhood had an rate of 155.3 HIV diagonoses per 100,000 people in 2009 — more than three times the city's overall average. The next neighborhood down on the list was Central Harlem — Morningside Heights, which had an infection rate of 127.1 per 100,000 people.
The report also found that five percent of Chelsea residents were living with HIV/AIDS. Overall, 1.4 percent of the city's population has HIV.
More people in Chelsea who were diagnosed with HIV/AIDS identify themselves as men who have sex with men than the citywide average, the data said.
Of those infected in Chelsea in 2009, roughly 75 percent of those diagnosed with HIV self-reported to the Health Department as being men who have sex with men, compared to 43 percent of those diagnosed citywide who self reported as men who have sex with men, according to the study.
In addition, a majority of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS who live in Chelsea are white, a much higher proportion than the citywide average, the Health Dept. found. About 54.5 percent of those diagnosed in Chelsea are white, compared with approximately 16.7 percent citywide. The population of Chelsea was 65 percent white, according to the 2000 Census.
Historically, the area has a relatively high level of the virus, which leads it to spread more easily, but experts also credit continued unsafe sex in the community.
John Guidry, the Director of Community Health and Research at Gay Men's Health Crisis, an AIDS service organization, said the numbers reflect a disturbing trend of some gay men throwing caution into the wind when it comes to safe sex.
"People are not thinking of HIV as a big deal anymore," he said. "It's not the first thing on people's minds. There may not be a sense of urgency."
HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, and antiretroviral drugs have turned it into a relatively manageable disease — so much so that some men are taking it less seriously, he said. At the same time, there's still a stigma against the disease itself.
"There's patterns of people not disclosing [if they have HIV] to the person you would be partnering with," Guidry said. "They're in the moment, and it still stops people from taking steps to protect themselves."
At the same time, the neighborhood has a huge support network for people living with HIV/AIDS. The city offers rapid HIV testing and counselling at a clinic in the neighborhood. In July, GMHC opened the storefront Center for HIV Prevention at 224 W. 29th St.
There are also many Chelsea-based bars, clubs, and sports leagues that raise money for HIV/AIDS organizations.
"A lot of our clients have it. It's something important to them," said Rob Hynds, co-owner of Boxers NYC, a gay sports bar at 37 W. 20th St. "The community really comes together on this."
Like many bars in the neighborhood, Boxers hosts fundraising events once ever few months.
"Many of us have had friends that died," said Hynds. "You can't get anything closer to their hearts."
Still, the disease is not something you advertise, according to Bob, a 51-year-old Chelsea resident who recently contracted HIV and did not want his last name used.
"It's something I avoided for so long, so I was unsafe," he said. "I still haven't told my best friends, but I haven't had sex since."
Guidry said that kind of sentiment is common.
"There can still be a heightened sense of stigma individually that keeps people quiet," he said.
Things may be looking up for the gay community, however. Recent potential game-changers in research may soon revolutionize HIV prevention. The CDC is currently testing pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a new prevention method that involves those without HIV taking a steady regimen of antiretroviral drugs.
Clinical tests showed that PrEP reduced HIV infections by 92 percent over a placebo, according to a July report. The tests come after years of whispers in the gay community that such a treatment worked.
"People thought if you have a certain level of treatment in the body, you won’t get it," said Guidry. "So you had men without HIV who have been taking HIV drugs."
Still, Guidry points out that even going by the results shown by the clinical tests, PrEP is not as safe as using a condom. GMHC wants people to know that, and that HIV is still something to take seriously, especially in Chelsea.
"We have been a street-level presence here," Guidry said.
"We're here to tell people it's still a big deal."