- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO - A sudden, surprising increase in HIV infections has been discovered among male black college students in North Carolina, and officials fear the same probably is happening across the South.

The upsurge is driven by young black men having risky sexual encounters with other men, health officials say. Typically, these young men do not consider themselves homosexual or bisexual and even might have girlfriends.

“It’s a public-health emergency. I don’t know any other way to put it,” said Dr. Peter Leone, HIV medical director at the state Health Department.

The increase was noticed first in late 2002, and officials now think it began in mid-2001 and is continuing.

The high rate of AIDS infection among U.S. blacks has been one of the most striking difficulties encountered in AIDS prevention.

Blacks are 11 times more likely than white Americans to get AIDS. Even though they make up 12 percent of the population, they account for 39 percent of AIDS cases and 54 percent of new HIV infections.

Among black men, as with whites, the leading cause of infection is sex with other men. Experts long have lamented the high rate of risky sex among homosexual black men. Poverty often is listed as a strong contributor, so the new findings among relatively well-off college students were unexpected.

“We are very concerned about it,” said Dr. Ron Valdiserri, deputy HIV chief at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Most Americans would not think about college students as a high-risk group.”

Indeed, a CDC study on 10 campuses in the 1990s found a very low infection rate.

The North Carolina data were presented Tuesday in San Francisco at the 11th annual Retrovirus Conference.

The North Carolina researchers found 84 newly infected male college students in the past three years, 73 of them black. Only one black student admitted using injected drugs, and just two said they had sex only with women. The rest apparently were infected through sex with men.

The researchers said they suspect a similar surge might be occurring among black male college students across the South.

“We have no reason to think this is limited to North Carolina,” said Dr. Lisa Fitzpatrick at the CDC.

Dr. Leone said HIV appears to have been introduced recently among black college students. People are much more likely than usual to pass on the virus through sex during their first weeks of infection, and this might explain why so many students have caught it.

When the students were questioned, three-quarters said they thought they were not at high risk of HIV, despite frequent sex acts without condoms with different male partners.

“Part of it is message fatigue,” Dr. Leone said. “They’ve grown up hearing this thing. It’s old stuff to them. They just ignore it.”

Another possible factor might be an especially intense stigma against HIV and homosexuality in the South.

“We have a very marginalized group,” he said. “They don’t identify with the messages targeted to gay white men.”

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