by Robin Brunet
The Vanguard Project, a three-year study of 1,000 "men who have sex with other men" that began in April 1995, was designed to get hard facts on the number of HIV-infected men. It was seeking some answers on why, after 10 years of educational programs and millions of dollars in tax-funded propaganda campaigns, so many young homosexual men still refuse to take the "safe-sex" message to heart.
The project, conducted by the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and funded by Health Canada, has come up with some disturbing data: young homosexuals and bisexuals are becoming infected with HIV at twice the expected rate. Almost 3% of participants converted to an HIV-positive status in the first year of the study, not including the men who tested positive at the beginning of the project.
If this trend continues, one-quarter of young homosexuals and bisexuals who are currently HIV-negative will become infected in the next decade, warns project director Steve Martindale, "and it will take under 25 years for half of the HIV-negative population to become infected."
Steffanie Strathdee, who oversees the Vanguard Project, points out that while a 3% per year infection rate may not be as severe as the HIV infection rate among IV drug users, it is still an epidemic "because 3% to 10% of our population is gay, compared to only 1% for IV users. We have two overlapping HIV epidemics in the city." (However, Dr. Strathdee's estimate of the incidence of homosexuals in the population is much higher that that reported by recent studies conducted in western countries, which places the incidence of male homosexuality between 1% and 3%.)
The Vanguard Project also highlights the epidemic of psychological problems suffered by practising homosexuals, and posits that these psychological and emotional difficulties may be the key to explaining why young people continue to put themselves at risk. Twenty-two percent of study participants report having been diagnosed with a mood disorder or mental illness (most commonly depression). Over half had seriously considered suicide at some point in their lives, and 18% had made at least one suicide attempt.
The study has also found that violence is common in Vancouver's homosexual community. Eleven percent of participants reported having been "gay-bashed," 18% had experienced domestic violence, and 25% had been sexually abused or assaulted. Preliminary results from the study suggest these victims of violence are subsequently more likely to put themselves at risk for HIV infection.
While stressing that she is not judging people's behaviour, Dr. Strathdee muses that "there's also definitely the factor that young people think they're invincible. Unlike older gay men, young ones have never seen friends die of AIDS."
She adds that the highly publicized "cocktail" of drugs which prolong the lives of people with AIDS and lessen the ravages of the disease has ironically prompted young men to have unsafe sex. "Some of them actually equate AIDS with diabetes: it's bad to get, but manageable."
In fact, while she would not disclose figures that will be released later in October, Dr. Strathdee indicates there has been an increase in study participants who have practised unprotected anal sex since the Vanguard Project began. "When we started out, half the study participants had engaged in unsafe sex; that number has grown. But that's a whole other story."
For more information, contact:
Vanguard Project Coordinator
608 - 1081 Burrard Street
Vancouver, BC, Canada, V6Z 1Y6