- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 7, 2002

The new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send a team to investigate whether a San Francisco group's AIDS prevention programs are violating federal law by promoting sex.

The two-day inquiry next week will focus on programs operated by San Francisco's Stop AIDS Project, which received $700,000 in federal tax dollars in 2000.

Last year, a Department of Health and Human Services inspector general described ads for the group's "Great Sex" and "Booty Call" workshops as "obscene" and found that the workshops violated guidelines against promoting sexual activity in federally funded AIDS prevention programs.

Dr. Julie Gerberding, appointed last month as CDC director, wrote Friday in a letter to Stop AIDS officials that she was "sending a CDC team to your organization to assess whether these programs are not only scientifically sound, but also consistent with [federal program guidelines]."

Dr. Gerberding, a former professor of epidemiology at the University of California at San Francisco, wrote to Stop AIDS Executive Director Darlene Weise that "CDC continues to receive complaints" about the group's programs.

A spokeswoman for the group said, however, that CDC visits are routine.

"We receive visits from the CDC all the time," said Stop AIDS Communications Director Shana Krochmal. "Some of them are required by our contract. And some of them are because our programs have been held up by the CDC as a model of how to do prevention work. So we often get visitors from the CDC who are here to see how we do the work we do."

Recently advertised Stop AIDS Project workshops include a class to help homosexuals improve their "cruising skills" and "share pick-up strategies," a session on masturbation, and "A Walk on the Wild Side," about sex without condoms. Other August workshops include one titled "I Need a Man" and another on sex toys.

Stop AIDS critics were pleased with Dr. Gerberding's decision to investigate the programs.

The move is "an excellent development," said Michael Petrelis, a homosexual activist in San Francisco. "It's 2002, and the CDC is finally asking if the [AIDS prevention] programs in San Francisco are scientifically sound. What took them so long?"

Noting that the San Francisco Health Department last year reported "sub-Saharan levels" of HIV infection in the city, Mr. Petrelis said, "I'd like HIV money spent on effective prevention programs. I don't see any scientific proof that the [Stop AIDS Project] programs are reducing HIV infections."

"This is a welcome development," said Gabe Neville, spokesman for Pennsylvania Rep. Joseph R. Pitts, one of three Republican congressmen who signed a complaint letter against the taxpayer-funded workshops to HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson last year.

"It appears that many of the initiatives in this program are outrageous and not something that the taxpayers should be funding," Mr. Neville said. "You don't have to be pornographic in order to be effective."

"The CDC's policies in San Francisco are a dismal failure," said Rep. Dave Weldon, Florida Republican, who treated AIDS patients as a physician in Florida before being elected to Congress in 1986.

"We've seen a doubling of new HIV infections [in San Francisco] over the past four years; new syphilis infections have grown from under 30 to over 400 per year, and the CDC says three-quarters of those infected with HIV don't know it," Mr. Weldon said. "And this in a city that gets twice the amount of AIDS money as any other community."

But Stop AIDS offered a different perspective.

"I think those statistics prove the point that our work is needed now more than ever," Ms. Krochmal said. "HIV prevention is not a battle that is won or lost with one report or set of new statistics."

She said the project's workshops are reviewed to ensure they comply with "local community standards."

In November, HHS Inspector General Janet Rehnquist issued a report of her study of Stop AIDS programs, concluding that the group's "Great Sex" workshop "appears to directly promote sexual activity" and that the "Booty Call" workshop "appears to focus equally on, and possibly to promote, sexual activity."

Miss Rehnquist found that "sexually explicit workshop advertisements" might meet "the legal definition of obscene material."

Under guidelines developed in 1986 and revised in 1992, CDC funds are prohibited for "education or information designed to promote or encourage, directly, homosexual or heterosexual sexual activity or intravenous substance abuse."

Officials at the CDC headquarters in Atlanta did not respond to requests for comment.

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