ORAL SEX: New Study to Determine Real Risk Of HIV Infection
Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco's Center for AIDS Prevention Studies have teamed up with the university's Oral AIDS Center and AIDS Health Project, a San Francisco education and counseling organization, to begin a study "designed to isolate the risk factors involved in oral [HIV] transmission by comparing men who have been infected orally with those who have engaged in oral sex but have not been infected," Salon.com reports. Approximately 30 cases of infection through oral sex alone have been documented, but many men in the gay community have "assumed that the risk is infinitesimal." As a result of the belief that the risk of oral sex is "pretty low," Salon.com reports that "many AIDS educators have ... recently reduced their efforts to convince people not to have oral sex so they can focus all their attention on discouraging them from having unprotected anal sex." In an interview with Salon.com, HIV oral transmission study principle investigator Kimberly Page-Shafer said, "The majority of sexually active people have oral sex and they want to know. Everybody asks about this when they go to get tested for HIV. And the fact is, we don't know what may increase or decrease a person's chances of acquiring [the virus] through oral sex." Page-Shafer said it's difficult to quantify oral transmission because it's "not easy to find people who have only had oral sex for the past 10 years." However, as the result of a new diagnostic tool that permits researchers to identify HIV infections acquired within the preceding 129 days, she notes, "[W]e don't have to talk to people about what they did two years ago but can identify people who've only had oral sex in the last six months." The study will screen individuals who go to anonymous testing sites in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and will compare them on a "variety of behavioral, clinical and oral health factors -- who they have sex with, what kind of drugs they take ... the status of their mouth, whether the oral sex continues to ejaculation, have they had dental work, do they have periodontal disease or sexually transmitted diseases." Thus far, the study has 117 eligible participants, but has not yet seen any new infections among the group. Page-Shafer indicated that 40 cases of new HIV infections, to be compared with 120 control subjects, would be ideal for the study. "If we don't find enough," she said, "it means that oral transmission is even rarer than we thought" (Tuller, Salon.com, 10/20).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.