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Is the Success of AIDS Treatment Making Gay Men Complacent?

Rick Sowadsky

September 2009

When the AIDS epidemic began, it was a wake-up call for the gay community to start practicing safer sex. Practicing safer sex not only protects you against HIV, it also protects you against other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) as well. Diseases like hepatitis B, herpes, genital/anal warts and gonorrhea are nothing new to the gay community. But AIDS gave the importance of safer sex new meaning. During the late 1980s, safer sex practices in the gay community increased significantly. As a result of this, not only did the rate of HIV infection go down, but the rate of other STDs went down as well. Great news!

Unfortunately, that great news is now history. More and more gay men are now going back to practicing unsafe sex. With that is coming a rise in the number of new cases of HIV infection among gay men, especially young gay men.

There are multiple reasons for this resurgence in unsafe sex practices. Some men have just become tired and bored with practicing safer sex. Some men have gotten sick of using condoms every time they have sex. Others are too drunk or high on drugs to use condoms, or use them correctly. And some men have simply become less diligent about using condoms every time.

One of the greatest advances regarding AIDS has been the use of new treatments known as "cocktails." A "cocktail" is a group of antiviral drugs, that together can slow down the HIV virus. The media has now made AIDS sound like it is fully manageable, and that these cocktails are wonder drugs. Just pop a few pills a day and the disease goes away! WRONG! These cocktails are not wonder drugs. Although these drugs can benefit many people, for some people, the side effects of these drugs can be difficult. The media rarely shows this side of AIDS treatment.

A great concern among those working in AIDS prevention has been that because of these new cocktails, gay men will no longer fear becoming infected with HIV, and will go back to practicing unsafe sex. Until recently, that concern has been largely theoretical. Now, it has become reality.

In one recent study in San Francisco among gay men, researchers found that some gay men are no longer practicing safer sex as often. This was partly because they no longer fear getting HIV, due to effective HIV treatment. In this study, 26% stated they were less concerned about getting infected with HIV, because of the new drug cocktails; 13% stated that they were willing to take a chance of getting infected when having sex; 15% said they had already taken that chance. Some of these men specifically stated that they no longer feared infection with HIV, as they thought they could take HIV meds to prevent becoming infected.

Our worst fears are becoming a reality. Some gay men are going back to high-risk sex thinking that these HIV meds will protect them, even after they become infected. Again, these drugs are not wonder drugs, and involve a lot more than just popping a few pills a day.

If you think the AIDS epidemic is over because of HIV medication, think again! The last thing we need is a new resurgence in HIV/AIDS cases among gay men! HIV treatment does benefit many (but not all) persons with HIV. But they are not wonder drugs, and you can't depend on them to protect you against HIV infection.

And HIV treatment won't do a thing to protect you against other STDs. Let's face it, getting herpes or warts on your penis or your rectum isn't a pleasant experience (not to mention all the problems with the other STDs as well)!

Let's not repeat our previous mistakes. If there is any possibility your partner may have HIV or another STD, use protection. Don't depend on HIV drugs to save you. As long as there are STDs, there will be a need for condoms.


Do you want more information on HIV/AIDS, STDs or safer sex? Contact the U.S. Centers for Disease Control AIDS health line, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 1-800-CDC-INFO. Or visit The Body's Safe Sex and Prevention Forum.

Until next time . . . Work hard, play hard, play safe, stay sober!




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