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Dangerous Intersection of Drug Use and Sexual HIV Transmission Points to Critical Need for Comprehensive HIV Prevention

Sharing syringes and other equipment for drug injection is a well known route of HIV transmission, yet injection drug use contributes to the epidemic's spread far beyond the circle of those who inject. People who have sex with an injection drug user (IDU) also are at risk for infection through the sexual transmission of HIV. Also, children born to mothers who contracted HIV through sharing needles or having sex with an IDU may become infected as well.

Since the epidemic began, injection drug use has directly and indirectly accounted for more than one-third (36%) of AIDS cases in the United States. This disturbing trend appears to be continuing. Of the 48,269 new cases of AIDS reported in 1998, 15,024 (31%) were IDU-associated.

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Racial and ethnic minority populations in the United States are most heavily affected by IDU-associated AIDS. In 1998, IDUs accounted for 36% of all AIDS cases among both African American and Hispanic adults and adolescents, compared with 22% of all cases among white adults/adolescents.

IDU-associated AIDS accounts for a larger proportion of cases among women than among men. Since the epidemic began, 59% of all AIDS cases among women have been attributed to injection drug use or sex with partners who inject drugs, compared with 31% of cases among men.

Noninjection drugs (such as "crack" cocaine) also contribute to the spread of the epidemic when users trade sex for drugs or money, or when they engage in risky sexual behaviors that they might not engage in when sober. One CDC study of more than 2,000 young adults in three inner-city neighborhoods found that crack smokers were three times more likely to be infected with HIV than non-smokers.

Preventive Strategies for IDUs Must Be Comprehensive

Comprehensive HIV prevention interventions for substance abusers must provide education on how to prevent transmission through sex.

Numerous studies have documented that drug users are at risk for HIV through both drug-related and sexual behaviors, which places their partners at risk as well. Comprehensive programs must provide the information, skills, and support necessary to reduce both risks. Researchers have found that many interventions aimed at reducing sexual risk behaviors among drug users have significantly increased the practice of safer sex (e.g., using condoms, avoiding unprotected sex) among participants.

Drug abuse treatment is HIV prevention, but drug treatment slots are scarce.

In the United States, drug use and dependence are widespread in the general population. Experts generally agree that there are about 1 million active IDUs in this country, as well as many others who use noninjection drugs or abuse alcohol. Clearly, the need for substance abuse treatment vastly outstrips our capacity to provide it. Effective substance abuse treatment that helps people stop using drugs not only eliminates the risk of HIV transmission from sharing contaminated syringes, but, for many, reduces the risk of engaging in risky behaviors that might result in sexual transmission.

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