Columbus, Ohio, Officials Target Gay Community With ‘In-Your-Face’ HIV Prevention Campaign
Public health officials in Columbus, Ohio, this summer launched an "in-your-face" HIV awareness campaign targeted at a gay population that no longer sees AIDS as a "heavyweight killer," the Columbus Dispatch reports. Two studies released this year showed a 17% increase nationwide in unprotected sex among HIV-negative gay and bisexual men since 1994 and a 10% increase in unprotected sex among HIV-positive men from 1998 to 2000. Public health workers in Columbus are seeing the same trend. "In the past two or three years, we've seen an increase in STDs, more risky behaviors, more partners and more use of drugs. We've been talking to some younger men who don't care about having safe sex; they think they aren't going to get (HIV). It's kind of scary," Michelle Headlee, head of community services for the Columbus Health Department's sexual health division, said.
Coming Out Early
The rise in unsafe sex practices comes at a time when many gay men are coming out at younger ages and experimenting with sex sooner. A 2000 survey of the 1,391 males in Franklin County with HIV or AIDS found that 54% were under the age of 39, and 24% contracted HIV as teenagers or young adults. Most young gay men did not witness the AIDS-related deaths of the 1980s and early 1990s before the introduction of antiretroviral drugs. "The attitude is that these meds are available: 'There are pills I can take that can stop it,'" Chris Ahrens, a research nurse with Ohio State University's AIDS Clinical Trials Unit who is studying the sexual behavior of gay men at high risk for HIV, said.
Campaign Gets People Talking
This summer, as part of a public service campaign first tried in San Francisco, the Columbus health department began distributing postcards with pictures of men in "sexual embraces" and the question: "How do you know what you know?" in gay bars and other places such as parks and bathhouses. Officials also placed billboards with similar messages at some of the city's "gay hot spots." According to Ahrens, "That campaign has got people talking. It gets the subject of HIV and AIDS back into our community." The initiative also focuses on getting those who have HIV tested and into treatment. "If tested early, they have 1,000 options. Later, they don't have any options," Ahrens explained (Crane, Columbus Dispatch, 10/22).