Young Adult Drug Users Face Big HIV, STD Risk

Young adult drug users who have a series of monogamous relationships are at a substantial risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, a pilot study suggests. The study reported that more than 50 percent of those interviewed did not use condoms during sex in the previous month. ”Our findings are significant because they suggest that this population is more at risk than it realizes.”From RTI:

Young Adult Drug Users Face Substantial Risk of HIV, STDs, RTI Study Suggests

Young adult drug users who have a series of monogamous relationships are at a substantial risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, a pilot study by RTI International suggests.

The study, funded by the UNC Center for AIDS Research and the National Institutes of Health, reported that more than 50 percent of those interviewed did not use condoms during sex in the previous month, said Kara S. Riehman, a sociologist at RTI and the study’s principal investigator.

”Our findings are significant because they suggest that this population is more at risk than it realizes,” Riehman said.

Riehman is scheduled to present her research at the American Public Health Association annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9th.

The study, titled ”Risky Relationship Dynamics Among Young Adult Drug Users,” differentiates between casual sex and the occurrence of successive, monogamous sexual relationships.

According to Riehman, public health campaigns have been largely effective in encouraging people who engage in casual sex to routinely use condoms, and many studies support this finding.

By comparison, individuals who sustain a series of monogamous relationships tend not to practice safe sex, the RTI study found.

”Most of the people we interviewed reported that they trusted the person with whom they were having sex at the time,” Riehman said. ”As a consequence, they tended not to use condoms and because of that may unknowingly face significant risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.”

Riehman and her colleagues at RTI interviewed 47 substance abusers aged 18 to 25 and their adult sexual partners (94 respondents in all). The participants were identified through street outreach in Durham County and at a Wake County methadone clinic. Those admitted to the study had been involved in a sexual relationship for at least two weeks. Interviews were conducted from October 2003 to February 2004.

Because of the limited sample size, the pilot study’s findings cannot be generalized to the larger population of 18 to 25 year-old substance abusers. The next step, Riehman said, is to conduct a larger study to obtain a representative sample.

The pilot study nevertheless has provided important insights. For instance, it also found that 21 percent of those interviewed thought their partners considered themselves to be in a monogamous relationship when in fact the partners reported otherwise. This finding, coupled with the fact that most respondents were not using condoms, supports the assertion that some people are at a greater risk of infection than they realize, Riehman said.

In addition, the study found that 37 percent of the respondents reported that they had an ”overlapping” sexual partner, meaning that one or more of their relationships were not strictly monogamous. Put another way, these individuals had not completely ended a prior sexual relationship before starting another one, further increasing the possibility of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.

”Most studies of this age group have focused on college students,” Riehman said. ”We don’t know as much as we should about young adults who use drugs or alcohol but are not enrolled in college. This population has not received adequate attention from the scientific community.”

Riehman said the goal of her research is to accumulate enough knowledge about this group of young adults to design interventions that will precisely target the public health challenges that they collectively face.

The research team led by Riehman includes Wendee M. Wechsberg, director of RTI’s Substance Abuse Treatment Evaluations and Interventions Program; and Wendy K.K. Lam, Shelley Francis, Rachel M. Ellerson and Shirley Owino, all also affiliated with the program.

RTI News Media Contacts

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Research Triangle Park, NC 27709-2194

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