Feature Archive

Are You Having Safe Sex?

AIDS still kills. So why are so many people so complacent?

WebMD Feature

March 27, 2000 (Great Falls, Mont.) -- Powerful new AIDS treatments that became available over the last few years are helping people infected with the virus to live longer and better lives. That's the good news. Unfortunately, according to several recent studies, the bad news is that these treatments are lulling some people into a false sense of security and triggering a rise in unsafe sex. The end result, warn public health experts, could be higher numbers of people diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, as well as other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The Evidence

In one study of 500 gay men in West Hollywood, Calif., the more optimistic the men were about new AIDS treatments, the less likely they were to use condoms, abstain from sex, limit their number of sexual partners, or ask about a partner's HIV status. The study was presented at the National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta in 1999.

"Because of the new drugs, they were less fearful of transmitting HIV to someone else, and they thought if they gave it to someone else, it was less bad because of the drugs," says study leader Sheila Murphy, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

In another study, Stan Lehman, Ph.D., and his colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surveyed 1,976 HIV-negative people in seven states who were at high risk for HIV infections, including gay men, injection drug users, and heterosexuals with STDs. About one-fifth were found to have let down their guard during sex or drug use, citing the better treatments for their riskier behavior. Drug users were the most likely to exhibit complacency, followed by heterosexuals, and then gays, although all groups seemed to have been affected, Lehman's team reported at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in San Francisco earlier this year.