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Gay Women and HIV Risk: First Federal Study to Examine Link

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WebMD Health News

Feb. 14, 2000 (Atlanta) -- The first federally funded study of gay women is underway in five major cities. Researchers say the data could lead to more informed messages about safe sex and HIV prevention.

Co-sponsored by the CDC and Yale University, recruitment of women for the three-year study has begun in Baltimore, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington. Researchers hope to substantiate the risk of sexual activity between women, independent of high-risk behavior like injection drug use, through interviews and viral DNA analysis.

In a previous CDC study, it was shown that many women with AIDS had a history of both female sexual contact and injection drug use. In addition, scientists have long believed that sexual activity between women is an unlikely mode of HIV transmission. But researchers say that five reported cases of female-to-female transmission warrant a more comprehensive investigation.

"This population [lesbians] hasn't been looked at before, says Renee Culver, PhD, a licensed psychologist and coordinator of the study at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. "So there hasn't been any data on which to base prevention messages. But these findings will enable us to knowledgeably differentiate between safe and unsafe sexual activities between women."

"Because of the scarcity of data, we can't say with absolute certainty that female-to-female HIV transmission does not occur," says Helene Gayle, MD, MPH, the director of the CDC's National Center for HIV, STD, and TB Prevention. "So we hope the findings help address this longstanding question."

"It's not reasonable to think that HIV can't be spread from one woman to another," says Lisa Weissmann, MD, the vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, "because the issue is sexual behavior. The virus doesn't care if you're a man or a woman, a duck or a goose," says Weissman. "Women who've had sex with women shouldn't necessarily be fearful, nor should they be complacent." Weissmann tells WebMD that deep kissing probably poses little risk.

"It may be possible for HIV to be transmitted through deep kissing, particularly if there are broken areas in the lining of the mouth," says Weissmann. "But the risk is probably very low. And rather than worrying excessively about kissing, it would be much wiser to prevent injury and illness with seat belts and smoking cessation."

The CDC is now recruiting HIV-positive women who have had even a single sexual encounter with a woman, recognizing that not all who meet this criteria consider themselves lesbians.

 

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