Rise in Aids virus linked to gay online chat rooms

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The Independent US

Researchers in the United States are warning that gay chat rooms on the internet are giving men easy access to casual sex that is often high-risk and could be accelerating the spread of the Aids virus.

Researchers in the United States are warning that gay chat rooms on the internet are giving men easy access to casual sex that is often high-risk and could be accelerating the spread of the Aids virus.

Concern is deepening that websites such as www.gay. com, which allow men to make instant contact with each other and arrange to meet for sex, are serving the same purpose as bathhouses in the 1980s. The bathhouse culture faded once it was linked with the spread of HIV.

The release of a report by the Medical Health Research Association of New York City (MHRA) into the behaviour of visitors to gay.com coincides with new data showing that the cases of reported HIV infections in the United States rose last year for the first time in a decade.

"The internet is a new venue associated with high-risk sex," Sabina Hirshfield of the MHRA said at a conference on HIV in Boston. "It is a quick and easy way to meet partners."

She researched the habits of 3,000 users of gay.com, most of whom were white, college-educated men under 30. She found that 84 per cent said they had met men online and about two thirds had recently had unprotected anal sex. About a quarter reported having had at least 100 sex partners.

Dan Wohlfeiler, former education director of the Stop Aids Project in San Francisco, said: "Chat rooms are an incredibly efficient way of finding sex. What we have to do is find an equally efficient way to help guys stay safe while they're doing it."

Gay.com posted news of the report yesterday, noting that it deployed sex counsellors in the chat rooms to advise on safe sex. There are similar gay chat services on America Online and a wide variety of other internet services for gay men looking to meet.

New figures from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) show an 8 per cent rise in HIV cases in 25 US states – not including California and New York – between 1999 and 2001. "We see a 14 per cent increase in HIV diagnoses over this two-year period in men who have sex with men and a 10 per cent increase in heterosexual transmissions," Dr Ron Valdiserri of the CDCP said, adding that "Aids complacency" might be partly to blame because people avoided getting tested.

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