- The Washington Times - Friday, January 24, 2003

A magazine's claim that 25 percent of newly HIV-positive homosexual men sought infection with the virus for erotic reasons has set off a dispute with homosexual advocates and public-health officials.
Rolling Stone asserts that about 10,000, or 25 percent, of the 40,000 new infections recorded each year in the United States are homosexual men who deliberately seek out infected partners so they can contract AIDS.
Health officials and homosexual groups acknowledge that the phenomenon known as "bug chasing" is real, but insist that the assertions in Rolling Stone exaggerate the number of men who have become infected this way.
"We have no data to show how many people are participating in this phenomenon," said Jessica Frikey, a spokeswoman with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention. "No studies have been done to see how many 'bug chasers' there are."
According to the CDC, the total number of reported AIDS cases in December 2001 was 816,149 82 percent of which were adult or adolescent males, 17 percent adult or adolescent females, and slightly more than 1 percent children under 13.
Sexual relations between men accounted for the largest share of the AIDS cases, at slightly more than 45 percent. Another 25 percent of the cases were the result of drug use, 11 percent were the result of heterosexual sex, and an additional 6 percent of cases were homosexual men who also used drugs. Hemophiliacs accounted for 0.6 percent of the cases.
The Rolling Stone article by Gregory Freeman focuses on "Carlos," the pseudonym for a homosexual New Yorker who seeks out HIV-positive partners and purposely has unprotected sex.
The story then points to Dr. Bob Cabaj, the San Francisco County director of behavioral health services.
"Some men consciously seek the virus, openly declaring themselves 'bug chasers,' while many more are just as actively seeking HIV, but are in denial and wouldn't call themselves 'bug chasers,'" the article reads, citing Dr. Cabaj.
The article goes on to paraphrase him as estimating that at least 25 percent of all newly infected homosexual men fall into that category.
However, Dr. Cabaj insists that he never said anything like that, and other doctors and health officials interviewed for the Rolling Stone article told The Washington Times that their comments were mischaracterized.
"I have not seen the story yet, but apparently I have been misquoted in the story," Dr. Cabaj said in a telephone message yesterday.
Dr. Marshall Forstein, the medical director of mental health and addiction services at the Boston-based Fenway Community Health system, was one of the doctors quoted in the story who agreed that the "bug chasing" phenomenon exists, and that "bug chasers" are seen regularly in his health system.
"That is entirely a fabrication," Dr. Forstein said last night. "I have seen two such cases in the last three years, and I can count on one hand how many patients like that I've seen in the last 21 years. I said this was a small phenomenon, that it's a real and significant phenomenon for a specific group of men. The real phenomenon in the gay community is that many gay men do not take safe sex seriously. That's a real problem."
Officials with the San Francisco-based Stop AIDS Project also said the Rolling Stone story is "inaccurate."
"We know this is a relatively uncommon behavior," Shana Krochmal, a spokeswoman for the project, said yesterday. "The numbers in the story are inaccurate."
Cathy Renna, a spokeswoman for the New York-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, agreed that the story was groundless and added that it was not helpful.
"What's sad is that it's a behavior that is happening and the unfortunate part of all of this is that this story didn't offer any real solutions to this problem," she said.
The magazine's managing editor, Ed Needham, said yesterday he stood by the author and the article's fact checker.
"I have 100 percent confidence in the fact checker," Mr. Needham told Newsweek magazine. "I looked at the notes. I spoke with Freeman and with the fact checker, and I have total confidence in the story."
Mr. Needham said he had no idea why Dr. Forstein and Dr. Cabaj would say they were misquoted.
All those interviewed for the Rolling Stone article and contacted by The Times yesterday acknowledge that "bug chasing" has surfaced in cities like San Francisco, Miami, Boston and Los Angeles. But all agree that, without any hard numbers, there's no way to tell how widespread the trend is.
Why the "bug chasers" and the men who infect them, known as "gift givers," do it is another story.
For some, as the article states, they see HIV infection as inevitable because of their unsafe sex or needle sharing, so they decide to take control of the situation and infect themselves.
For others, infecting themselves is the most extreme sex act left a notion that has strong erotic appeal for some men who have tried everything else.
One passage in the article describes "Carlos" in this way:
"His eyes light up as he says that the actual moment of transmission, the instant he gets HIV will be the 'most erotic thing I can imagine,'"
"Carlos" also says that, should he become "positive," he would enjoy spreading the virus to a new partner.
"I'm murdering him in a sense, killing him slowly, and that's sort of, as sick as it sounds, exciting to me," he said.
There are also "conversion" parties, in which a slew of HIV-positive and HIV-negative men gather with the goal of having the "poz" men infect the others.
Dr. Forstein said the ads that young homosexual men see in the media can glorify the disease. Some of those ads feature "handsome, rugged young men, infected with AIDS, mountain climbing," or participating in other sports, he said.
"Some may think they're going to look like these men if they become infected," Dr. Forstein said. "They'll just think, 'Well, I'll just take some pills for the rest of my life,' and they're OK with that. There's really no one reason why this happens. These are very individualized psychological states that you really can't generalize."
Also, there are a number of Web sites that encourage this kind of behavior and ridicule the use of condoms or safe sex, advocates say.
"That's the sad story in all of this, that many in the gay community don't practice safe sex," Dr. Forstein said.


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