HIV-Positive Young People Engaging in More High-Risk Behavior Than Before HAART Availability, Study Says
HIV-positive young people are engaging in more unprotected sex, having more sexual partners and are more likely to use illicit drugs than HIV-positive young people did prior to the availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy, according to a study published in the Feb. 28 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior, Scripps Howard/Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports. Marguerita Lightfoot, assistant research psychologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, and colleagues compared data about the behaviors of 349 HIV-positive teenagers in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Miami collected from 1994 to 1996 with data about 175 HIV-positive teens in the same cities gathered from 1999 to 2000. The groups did not include the same people, but the teens studied had similar gender, age, race and socio-economic characteristics. HAART, which became available in 1996, can significantly reduce the viral loads of HIV-positive patients and delay their progression to AIDS, according to Scripps Howard/Post-Intelligencer.
The researchers found that HIV-positive teens in the more recent group were almost twice as likely as teens in the other group to have had unprotected sex in the past three months. In addition, teens in the more recent group had about double the number of sex partners and were more likely to have had a sex partner who injected drugs than the other group. The researchers also found that although teens in the more recent group were diagnosed HIV-positive earlier than teens in the previous group, they were in "worse health," according to Scripps Howard/Post-Intelligencer. Lightfoot said it is "surprising" that teens in the more recent group showed more symptoms of advanced HIV because of the availability of HAART, according to Scripps Howard/Post-Intelligencer. Only 53% of teens in the more recent group were on HAART, according to Scripps Howard/Post-Intelligencer. "This suggests that although they are being identified as HIV-positive at a younger age, these youth are being identified later in the progression of disease," she said, adding, "Therefore, it is also likely that they were infected at a younger age." Lightfoot said that the introduction of HAART has prolonged the lives of HIV-positive people, which means they might have more opportunities to transmit the virus to others, the Scripps Howard/Post-Intelligencer reports. "[E]vidence suggests that many people living with HIV believe that sexual behaviors that could lead to transmission of HIV, like unprotected sex, are less risky" because they have lower viral load levels, she said. Lightfoot added that the findings "indicate the need for continued attention to the issue of sexual risk and the impact" of new drugs such as HAART, according to Scripps Howard/Post-Intelligencer (Bowman, Scripps Howard/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2/28).