- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 19, 2012

Fewer Americans are engaging in behaviors that raise their risk for HIV/AIDS, primarily because men and women are changing their sexual activities, according to an extensive new federal report released Thursday.

The decline should raise hopes that “the messages of the public-health community have gotten through,” said Anjani Chandra, a health scientist and lead researcher of the National Center for Health Statistics report.

The report - which stems from private answers given by nearly 23,000 people - found that 10 percent of men and 8 percent of women, or 11.4 million Americans, engaged in at least one “risk behavior” that could lead to exposure to HIV/AIDS in 2006 through 2010.

Those numbers were down from 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively, or 14.4 million persons, who in 2002 reported engaging in at least one risky behavior.

The data come from two cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a massive, in-person survey taken of people between the ages of 15 and 44. To promote honesty among respondents, the NSFG uses laptops and head phones for questions about personal sexual and drug activity; only the person taking the survey knows what is being asked and answered.

The questions are about 10 HIV-risk-related behaviors a person may have engaged in over the previous 12 months.

Several categories saw no significant change: The percentage of men having sex with men stayed the same (2.1 percent), as did the number of those reporting “five or more opposite-sex sex partners” (3.9 percent for men, 1.8 percent for women.)

On the positive side, men and women reported fewer instances of sex with a “partner who injects drugs” - this figure fell to less than 1 percent for both genders - and both reported fewer episodes of “sex in exchange for money or drugs” (1.3 percent for men, 0.7 percent for women).

Women reported fewer instances of sex with “male partners who had sex with other males” - this fell from 2.3 percent to 1.4 percent - and men reported a decline in “crack cocaine use,” which fell from 1.8 percent to 0.8 percent.

Overall, though, a gender gap in HIV-risk behaviors remains, with men more often engaging in activities that could lead to infection.

“We do see that there’s lower levels of risk behaviors reported by women, compared to men,” said Ms. Chandra, noting that 8.4 percent of men reported at least one risky sex or drug abuse episode, compared to just 4.6 percent of women.

Moreover, one of the 10 “risk” factors - treatment for a sexually transmitted disease - could be seen in a positive light. Women significantly increased their reports of STD treatment, rising from 3.4 percent in 2002 to 4.1 percent in 2006 to 2010.

The results, along with recent evidence showing more regular condom use, heartened Pam Collins, program coordinator at Positive Efforts, which fights HIV/AIDS in Houston’s minority communities.

“I think women are becoming more responsible in the bedroom,” Ms. Collins said. “We teach women to have their own condoms. We teach them to be more responsible for their own bodies. So it makes me smile. I think some of our prevention messages are beginning to resonate.”

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