ORAL SEX: Study Reveals Risks for HIV Transmission
The risk of contracting HIV through oral sex is higher than experts previously thought, according to the most definitive study to date on the subject. Researchers presenting yesterday at the Seventh Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections said that in a study of the possible modes of transmission among 102 newly infected gay and bisexual men, 8% of those infections resulted from performing unprotected oral sex (Sternberg, USA Today, 2/2). The researchers, from the CDC and the University of California-San Francisco, said that while some reports of oral transmission have cropped up in the past, new diagnostic tests allowed them to pinpoint the time of infection (Haney, AP/Charlotte Observer, 2/2). Taking "great pains" to determine the mode of infection, researchers used medical records, interviews with the men and, when possible, interviews with their partners. Although many health officials have suspected oral sex could pose some risk of HIV transmission, some researchers were surprised at the magnitude of their results. "It was higher than we expected. This may be a significant way that men who have sex with men get infected," UCSF researcher Dr. Frederick Hecht said, noting that while "there's a lot less unprotected anal sex than there was a few years ago ... there hasn't been the same reduction in unprotected oral sex, which has probably become an important mode of transmission." However, he noted that engaging in unprotected receptive anal sex is 100 times more likely to transmit the virus (USA Today, 2/2). Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, deputy director of the CDC's HIV prevention center, said, "It's certainly sobering news. We've known ... that there was a risk of HIV transmission through oral sex. Of course scientists indicated that they thought it was a much smaller risk compared to anal or vaginal sex" (Fox, Reuters/Contra Costa Times, 2/2). He added that oral transmission does not require open sores or bleeding gums as "[t]iny nicks and abrasions probably could give a portal of entry to the virus."
Not Just Gay Men
Valdiserri expressed concern for teens and young adults who engage in oral sex because they believe it poses no risk of AIDS. "Not just gay men have oral sex. We need to be sure that young people, many of whom practice oral sex as an alternative to vaginal sex, need to understand there's a risk here," he said (Knox, Boston Globe, 2/2). Dr. Helene Gayle, the CDC's AIDS chief, said, "We know that the only safe sex is total abstinence or sex with a mutually monogamous, non-HIV-infected partner. Everything else has some degree of risk. The sense that oral sex is safe sex may have been an unfortunate message." National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci added, "A lot of us in the public health field have been saying all along to be careful of unprotected fellatio. People think the risk is low, but what's low?" (AP/Charlotte Observer, 2/2).