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HIV risks from lesbian sex 'low'

LESBIAN women infected with the Aids virus are unlikely to infect their partners even if the couple practise high-risk sexual intercourse, which, in theory, could result in transmission of HIV, according to a study.

Researchers studied 18 couples in which one woman was HIV positive, usually through intravenous drug use, and the other was free of the virus. The women were asked to keep a detailed record of their sexual activity for three months and have an HIV test every month for six months.

All couples practised deep kissing and mutual masturbation and most of them took part in high-risk sex acts with their partners, such as oral-genital sex, anal manipulation, sex during a period and exchange of sex toys. There was no evidence of female-to-female transmission of HIV throughout the study period.

Studies on Aids in women have focused on heterosexual and pregnant women, and infection of one woman by another during sex was assumed to be unusual event. However, the incidence of HIV among lesbians is unknown, and lesbian activists have long complained that they are the forgotten minority in safer sex campaigns which address gay men and heterosexuals. Many Aids organisations, including the Terrence Higgins Trust, now produce leaflets on safer sex for lesbians.

In an initial study the researchers from Turin University investigated 181 lesbian women in the city and found 11 were infected. The latest study, reported in tomorrow's issue of the Lancet, is a continuation of the investigation and concludes that the risks of viral tranmission associated with high-risk lesbian sex are minimal. They write: 'Our results support a non-existent risk of viral transmission in HIV-1-discordant (one woman HIV positive, the other HIV negative) lesbian couples engaging in sex acts that have a theoretically high transmission risk . . .'