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FRIDAY, June 20, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- New research confirms that unsafe sex is on the increase among HIV-positive gay men in San Francisco, while another study reports a whopping 15 percent of young gay men in a South Florida neighborhood are infected with the AIDS virus.
The findings add to a growing body of research that suggests gay men have become less vigilant about protecting themselves during sex.
"People aren't using condoms, they don't know their own HIV status, and they don't know their partner's status," says Jed Herman, associate program director with the Stop AIDS organization.
Stop AIDS assisted researchers in the San Francisco study, which took place from 1999 to 2001. Volunteers interviewed 10,579 gay and bisexual men at various locations throughout the city, including gay clubs and street fairs. They also talked to men during the annual gay pride parade events and on sidewalks in gay neighborhoods.
The researchers acknowledge it's not clear if the results represent a true cross-section of gay men in the city. But at the least, they say, the numbers represent a significant number of gay men.
The findings appear in the June 1 issue of the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes.
In 2001, 16.7 percent of the men surveyed reported that they'd recently risked the transmission of HIV during unprotected anal sex with at least two men. In these cases, the partners weren't both known to be HIV-positive or both HIV-negative, meaning that one partner could have been at risk of getting infected.
The rate of unsafe sex was just 12.7 percent in 1999.
Overall, 20.8 percent of HIV-positive men surveyed said they'd had unprotected anal sex with partners whose HIV status was either negative or unknown.
Researchers report they don't have statistics about the prevalence of HIV in San Francisco from 1999-2001, so they can't determine if the rising rates of unsafe sex contributed to more infections. But Herman says they're certainly "a protagonist for the perpetuation of the epidemic."
Another study in the same journal examines HIV infection rates in South Beach, an area of Miami Beach in Florida. South Beach is known as a largely gay neighborhood, and reports in the press have suggested it is especially popular among HIV-positive gay men who come there to " party and live out their final days," says study co-author William W. Darrow, a professor of public health at Florida International University.
Researchers surveyed 2,622 homes seeking young gay and bisexual men. They recruited 100 men between the ages of 18 and 29.
Forty-five percent said they'd had unprotected anal sex within the past 12 months, and 31 percent had done so with at least one casual sex partner. Fifteen percent of the men tested positive for the AIDS virus.
The researchers calculated that 6.3 percent of young gay and bisexual men in South Beach are becoming infected with HIV each year, one of the highest rates in the country.
It's clear that many HIV-positive men in South Beach have sex with men who might be uninfected, Darrow says. "They often assume that their sexual partners are well aware of their risks."
But why would the HIV-negative men put themselves at risk? Part of the problem may be that gay men are losing their fear of AIDS, Herman says, and don't realize the disease is still "no picnic." Last year, his organization sponsored a San Francisco advertising campaign that emphasized several unpleasant symptoms of AIDS drug treatment -- diarrhea, gaunt facial features, fat deposits on the belly and night sweats.
"You hear it's a chronic manageable illness like diabetes or hypertension, and people get unrealistic expectations of life with HIV," Herman said. "We need to educate people about why it's really not a good thing to become infected with the virus."
To learn more about HIV and AIDS and treatments, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.