Risky sexual behaviour fuelled in gay and bisexual men by the internet

A U.S. study says that gay and bisexual men who use the internet to meet partners are apparently more likely to engage in risky sex but tend to do so with people who have the same HIV status.

The Denver Public Health Department, who conducted the study say that forty-one percent of men who arranged to have sex with other men through the Internet, reported having unprotected anal intercourse with their last partner.

According to data collected from a sexually transmitted disease clinic in Denver in 2003 and 2004, that was comparable with 31 percent of men who met partners in gay bathhouses, 29 percent who used other public sex venues and 25 percent of those who met in bars or parties.

The Colorado study also found that compared to 20 percent of bathhouse patrons, 51 percent of the men who used the internet to meet had chosen a sex partner with the same HIV status as themselves.

These findings, along with two other studies suggesting many HIV-positive gay and bisexual men are deciding to have sex based on viral load counts, the amount of HIV detectable in a person's blood, has prompted warnings from health officials.

The studies were presented at the 2005 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta on June 15.

Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, deputy director of HIV, STD and TB prevention programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says that many men who have sex with men may falsely believe that these strategies will protect them from HIV infection.

Choosing sexual partners based on their HIV status or the amount of virus in blood can possibly reduce the risk of acquiring or transmitting HIV, there are also dangers in doing so, as many men do not know they have HIV.

Viral load results even when accurate, can become outdated and, there are no guarantees that HIV is not present in some body fluids.

The practice exposes people to other sexually transmitted diseases or puts those who are HIV-positive at risk of becoming infected with another strain of the virus, known as a super-infection.

The Internet users, according to the study, were more likely to have been diagnosed with gonorrhea.

These timely warnings came just two days after the CDC reported that more than 1 million Americans were living with HIV at the end of 2003.

The CDC say that gay and bisexual men made up 45 percent of the estimated 1,039,000 to 1,185,000 people who are HIV-positive, making them the largest single infected risk group.

AIDS, has killed about a half million Americans and at least 22 million people worldwide since 1981.

The disease destroys the immune system and leaves people vulnerable to opportunistic infections and cancers, and health experts have been warning of a possible resurgence of the epidemic.

The development of antiretroviral drugs eased the onslaught of the virus in the early 1990s.

Concerns have been voiced by experts that the increased use of crystal methamphetamine, a powerful stimulant that can lower inhibitions and lead people to engage in risky behaviour, has fuelled the resurge.

According to a survey of more than 19,000 such men by the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the number of gay and bisexual men who had used the illicit drug doubled between 2001 and 2004.

That increase was greater in those who were HIV-positive.

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