- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2003

A San Francisco anti-AIDS program says it has been vindicated by two federal investigations, but critics say there are still doubts about the effectiveness of the Stop AIDS Project's programs.
"After a year of redundant and unnecessary congressional inquiries and federal investigations, the Stop AIDS Project is now vindicated," Darlene K. Weide, executive director of the project, wrote in an open letter Thursday. "All of our work is in full compliance with federal laws and local guidelines."
Longtime critics of the project's activities, however, say that high rates of sexually transmitted disease one San Francisco epidemiologist has warned of "sub-Saharan African levels" of the AIDS virus in the city raise questions about whether the programs are effective.
"Stop AIDS says they know their programs are effective, but look at the monthly [sexually transmitted disease] reports, showing increases in all the diseases," said Michael Petrelis, an AIDS activist in San Francisco. "How much worse can it get than 'sub-Saharan' rates of HIV transmission?"
The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted separate inquiries into workshops and other programs offered by the Stop AIDS Project. Critics had charged that the sexually explicit workshops promoted sexual activity in violation of federal guidelines.
An initial inquiry by HHS Inspector General Janet Rehnquist in November 2001 found that the group's "Great Sex" workshop "appears to directly promote sexual activity." Miss Rehnquist also found that "sexually explicit workshop advertisements" might meet "the legal definition of obscene."
Miss Rehnquist recently issued a "follow-up review" of Stop AIDS to determine whether the project had complied with earlier recommendations about reporting expenditures properly and following procedures for reviewing materials used in AIDS prevention programs.
Stop AIDS "made progress in both areas," the follow-up report stated. The project has "taken several positive steps" to ensure that AIDS materials are submitted to a review panel, and that it had also implemented measures to ensure that expenditures of federal funds are properly reported.
A CDC team's assessment of Stop AIDS programs found the group's activities were "based on current accepted behavioral science," CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding wrote Thursday in a letter to Rep. Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican who is chairman of the criminal justice, drug policy and human resources subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee.
But the CDC's assessment "raises more questions than it answers," said Roland Foster, a subcommittee staffer.
"All it says is what Stop AIDS is doing is based on currently accepted behavioral theories. Accepted by who? Where is the proof that this program is working?" Mr. Foster said. "It's not in this letter and it's not in the San Francisco Health Department statistics, which show an increase in HIV, a doubling of syphilis, a jump in gonorrhea, a climb of chlamydia, a dramatic drop in HIV testing, and a frightening increase in unprotected sex. Is that effective?"
Those statistics suggest the prevention programs are failing, Mr. Foster said.
"I just don't know how it could be worse," he said. "No city spends more and talks more about AIDS than San Francisco. Perhaps it's the way they're talking about it that's the problem. Whatever they're saying clearly isn't making a positive impact on behavior."

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