"Preliminary evidence suggests that a small but significant proportion of HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals believe that unprotected sex may have less serious consequences because of new HIV treatments," says Craig Demmer, Ed.D., C.H.E.S., an associate professor of health education and promotion at Lehman College of the City University of New York.
Such complacency may have serious consequences for public health, he warns in the September issue of Health Promotion Practice, since "even modest levels of reduced concern about HIV risk can result in significant increases in HIV transmission."
"Individuals may perceive that HIV is less fatal and not as easily transmissible as a result of these new treatments ... but the reality is that these latest therapies for HIV do not work for everyone, and estimates of treatment failures range from 15 percent to 60 percent in various studies," he explains.
Most studies do not contain enough information to say definitively whether the introduction of the new treatments, commonly known as protease inhibitor combination therapies, have actually caused people to have riskier sex.
Recent studies of diverse population groups such as gay men, HIV-positive individuals and college students suggest that about 25 percent of individuals are less concerned about the threat of AIDS, according to Demmer.
"More people believe that being HIV-positive is not that big of a deal and they are reporting that they are less likely to practice safer sex nowadays," he says.
He adds that health professions should begin to address the impact of these treatment advances by revamping HIV prevention messages and programs.
To do this, he says, researchers will first have to collect more data on how much people know about the treatments and how they may affect risky sexual behaviors. Practitioners can then offer counseling that helps individuals deal with the psychological implications of the new therapies.
"It is crucial that public statements and media reports are accurate and conservative in describing the latest HIV treatments and that they do not mislead people into thinking that HIV is no longer a serious disease," Demmer adds.
BY BECKY HAM, SCIENCE WRITER
HEALTH BEHAVIOR NEWS SERVICE
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or www.hbns.org.
Interviews: Contact Craig Demmer at 718-960-7313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Health Promotion Practice: Contact Elaine Auld at 202-408-9804.