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Gay online daters at greater HIV risk

Sun 3 Dec 2006 In: New Zealand Daily News

Two major New Zealand studies show an increased number of men are putting themselves at risk of HIV infection. Greater investment in safe sex education needs to occur among gay and bisexual men who access online dating sites, says NZAF Senior Researcher Peter Saxton following initial analysis of study findings. The 2006 Gay Auckland Periodic Sex Survey (GAPSS) and the 2006 Gay men's Online Sex Survey (GOSS), joint projects carried out by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation and the University of Otago earlier this year, were responses to the rapid increase in HIV diagnoses among gay and bisexual men since 2002. The studies have highlighted significant differences between the offline and online participants. “When we compared the two survey samples, the men recruited online had significantly lower HIV knowledge, had more problematic attitudes to HIV and safe sex, and were less likely to have ever tested for HIV,” Saxton says. Researchers were surprised to find that the more often survey respondents went online to look for sex, the more concerning their attitudes were. Over 1 in 4 men (27%) who were high frequency online users agreed with the statement “I would sometimes rather risk HIV transmission than use a condom during anal sex”, compared to just 9% of men recruited offline in gay bars, social events and other venues. Men recruited online were twice as likely to be unaware that “once infected, HIV remains in your body for life.” Rates of unprotected sex are substantially higher among men recruited online, and many online respondents were socially removed from other gay men and were more likely to assume that someone with HIV would tell them they were positive before having sex The search facilities of Internet dating are making it easier for men to meet people with similar sexual interests or personal backgrounds than they could in a bar – and with more people. “Internet dating helps people become more efficient ‘shoppers' in the sexual marketplace, but whether they're also more informed ‘shoppers' is now questionable,” Saxton says. Overall, large numbers of men recruited online seem to have missed out on awareness-raising campaigns around safe sex and HIV, Saxton adds, and this is concerning. “Your chances of encountering HIV are increased by online dating. Connections can now be made between individuals who would never have met offline, between individuals from different places, age groups, and with different sexual histories. The virus uses these new connections to move into new groups.” One gay or bisexual man was diagnosed with HIV every four days in New Zealand in 2005, the highest rate ever. The increased number of infections in recent years means the pool of HIV in the community is also larger than it has ever been. Some of these people will not know they are infected. “People need to adjust to this. Things are different now compared to what they were even five years ago,” Saxton says. “If you use condoms for anal or vaginal sex this isn't a problem for you. If you don't, then it is. Don't assume that what you've done in the past will be sufficient to protect you now. We're adaptable, us kiwis, and we need to start playing a lot smarter.” The 2006 GAPSS report is due out later this month, with further GOSS results to be analysed in the New Year.    

Credit: News Staff

First published: Sunday, 3rd December 2006 - 12:00pm

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