- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 12, 2000

A new study reveals that the supposedly waning U.S. AIDS epidemic continues to rage and threatens to worsen.

An article appearing in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association reports that researchers administered HIV-infection tests to 3,492 homosexual and bisexual men aged 15 to 22. The researchers found that, on an average, 7 percent carry the HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus a number the report terms a "high prevalence" of the infection that produces AIDS.

The report concludes that this study, buttressed by earlier, limited surveys of young men, signals "a significant and continuing HIV epidemic among [homosexuals and bisexual males]."

"The results are alarming in light of the men's youth and compared with the HIV prevalence for samples of primarily heterosexual youth in the United States," the report states.

John Hylton of the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health says the results are "incredibly significant."

Mr. Hylton, a coordinator for the project, says the report's findings are "especially important because they clearly point to the high level of HIV among the young. They indicate the rates of infection are increasing among minority men in urban areas that aren't thought of as AIDS epicenters, the way San Francisco and New York are."

"We're talking of men who are just becoming sexually active men who are becoming acculturated into the gay social scene," Mr. Hylton says, implying that this bodes ill for the future.

But the results also are disconcerting because the study's participants presumably have been exposed to "HIV/AIDS prevention educational initiatives while they were growing up," the study points out. The nation became aware of the spreading AIDS epidemic about 1981, and the continuing anti-AIDS campaign began in 1984 and 1985, when the oldest men in the current study were about 7 years old.

Regardless, nearly 1 in 10 (9.7 percent) of the 22-year-old participants tested positive for the virus. None of the 15-year-olds was found to be infected at the time of the testing, which extended from 1994 to 1998.

"Prevalence of HIV was higher among blacks, Hispanics, and men of mixed or other race than among whites. Among men of mixed race, HIV prevalence was higher among those who reported black backgrounds than among those who did not," the study states.

Black people in the study had an infection rate of 16.9 percent, the highest recorded. Thus, the findings "display the large racial gap in the current HIV epidemic in the United States," the report continues.

Forty-one percent of those in the overall group stated they were engaging in unprotected sex, which heightens the risk of becoming infected. Researchers called that fact "sobering," and it led the scientists to declare:

"Considering their youth, the high prevalence of recent unsafe sex, and the high HIV prevalence in [those tested], many of the HIV-negative men are likely to become HIV-infected in the near future."

The researchers said the findings underscore "the need to evaluate and intensify prevention efforts for young [homosexuals and bisexuals], particularly blacks, men of mixed race or ethnicity, Hispanics and adolescents."

A team of 14 specialists and their staffs from around the country conducted the study. It was sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three state health departments plus seven city and county public health services and three university medical centers participated.

Because youths in the age groups studied are hard to reach by what the report called "traditional household-oriented sampling methods," the researchers took to the streets of seven major cities Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco Bay area and Seattle. They scoured dance clubs, bars, businesses, bathhouses, health clubs, parks, beaches and social organizations for subjects, often interviewing thousands of embarrassed and sometimes hostile men before identifying homosexuals and bisexuals who fit into the age groups being studied.

They ultimately discovered that the rate of HIV-infection among Seattle's study participants was just 2.2 percent, the lowest encountered. The highest: New York City's 12.1 percent.

The "multisite, venue-based" approach used by researchers in this study sets it apart from others. But it is particularly significant because many of the earlier estimates of HIV's pervasiveness that appeared in the late 1980s were based on surveys of men 30 years old or older.

The half-dozen more limited studies of younger men that were undertaken in the 1990s also found "high prevalence of HIV and sexual risk behaviors" among homosexuals and bisexuals.

Indeed the CDC's earlier HIV studies indicate that 55 percent of those carrying the infection are homosexual or bisexual men, 24 percent are heterosexual intravenous drug addicts, 6 percent are homosexual or bisexual male intravenous drug addicts, 2 percent are those who received transfusions of infected blood, 1 percent are hemophiliacs and 7 percent are heterosexuals.

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