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HIV-Positive May Delay Telling Casual Sex Partners

HIV-Positive May Delay Telling Casual Sex Partners

October 30, 2001 By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Some people with HIV may not tell their sexual partners and family until the disease has progressed, and casual sex partners are the least likely to be told early on, study findings suggest.

The findings are important not only in relation to preventing HIV transmission, but also because they show that HIV-infected individuals need the support of family and friends, the study's lead author told Reuters Health.

In interviews with adults attending HIV clinics in New Orleans, Tulane University researchers found that, after an average of nearly 3 years since diagnosis, three quarters of patients had told their main sex partners about their HIV status. Just one quarter of those with casual sex partners had informed them, however.

Megan E. O'Brien, of Tulane's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, reported the findings last week in Atlanta, Georgia, at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.

O'Brien and her colleagues interviewed 269 men and women treated in HIV clinics between June and September 2000. A majority were African American, and 80% had acquired HIV through sex, mainly heterosexual.

Among those with a regular sex partner, 74% said they had informed that partner of their HIV status. Fewer--70%--had told their immediate family. And of the 121 patients with casual sex partners, just 25% had informed their partners.

This low rate of disclosure to casual partners might reflect the success of treatment with antiretroviral drugs, O'Brien speculated. Many HIV-positive individuals are enjoying longer, healthier lives thanks to these drugs, and some, she noted, may believe that because they look and feel healthy, they are less likely to transmit the virus.

The Tulane researchers also found that people who did not disclose their HIV status to casual partners were less likely to use condoms than those who told at least one casual sexual contact.

"Individuals with and without HIV need to be educated about the limitations of antiretroviral therapy and the realities of HIV disease," O'Brien said, noting that it is "a treatment, not a cure."

In addition, she pointed out, people who are not infected must realize that they cannot assume partners will volunteer their HIV status and need to protect themselves by using condoms consistently.

As for disclosure to family and friends, O'Brien said this is often vital because of the emotional and practical support they can bring--although, she added, not all family members and friends will be supportive.

"HIV is still a disease which carries a social stigma," she said. "In such a setting, individuals with HIV have little incentive to disclose their HIV status. We need to address the cultural basis for stigma."

In the meantime, O'Brien said, professionals need to better counsel patients on how to tell different people about their status and how to deal with any "unpleasant reactions."

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