A new study is to put the relationship between illegal drug use and risky sex patterns in South Africa in the spotlight for the first time.

Although there has been a move towards exploring the direct and indirect roles of drug use in the transmission of HIV in other continents, the situation in Africa has been largely overlooked.

“Given the alarming prevalence of HIV in South Africa, as well as findings from similar international studies, its evident there is a growing need for specific data on drug-related sexual trends,” Petal Petersen, a substance-abuse expert at the local Medical Research Council (MRC), told IRIN/PlusNews.

The MRC, in collaboration with the United States (US) government, local offices of the US-based Centres for Disease Control (CDC) and a leading gay and lesbian rights group, OUT, will closely monitor drug-induced sexual behaviour among commercial sex workers, injecting drug users and homosexual communities.

Welcoming the opportunity to assist the MRC in this “timely intervention”, OUT sexual health manager Jacques Livingston expressed concern over the previously neglected issue of narcotics as a driving factor in the transmission of HIV in the country.

There are currently no figures indicating the relationship between recreational drug use and the spread of HIV in South Africa, but international findings show there is always a greater danger of risky sexual behaviour when drugs are introduced in social settings.

Research by the Integrated Substance Abuse Programmes at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the US, found that if the respondents (all gay men) had used crystal d-methamphetamine hydrochloride, a drug otherwise known as ‘speed’, in the past six months, there was a low but significant chance that they would be HIV-positive; among those who used it “once in a while” the figure was 25 percent; but when chronic users were interviewed the figure jumped to 40 percent.

“It [drug use/abuse] is really a serious problem in all circles, not just for homosexuals, although I do believe that more gay men might lean towards narcotics as a coping mechanism in coming to terms with their sexuality,” Livingston commented.

Supporting Livingston’s sentiments, Gordon-John Ho-Lin, 28, a single man living in Johannesburg, who only recently accepted his homosexuality, recalled how he sought refuge in a variety of illegal substances, sometimes with hair-raising consequences.

He told IRIN/PlusNews that the drugs served as an escape from having to face the truth about his sexuality or the rejection he feared from family, friends and co-workers.

Ho-Lin said he used cocaine, ecstasy tablets and the hallucinogen LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), among other drugs, which produced effects that included euphoria, increased energy, insomnia and a heightened sex drive.

“In the nightclubs, most people are ‘high’ on something, and often on the same [sexual] wave-length, so it’s easy to reciprocate when approached for sex,” said Ho-Lin.

He believed that under the influence of drugs, unprotected sex and sex with multiple partners was more common among both homosexuals and heterosexuals. “It’s no longer an issue of sexual identity, and heterosexuals will have sex with homosexuals because gays are often better employed and can afford to buy the drugs,” said Ho-Lin, who declined to reveal his HIV status.

Petal Petersen, of the MRC, said the new study, ‘International Rapid Response and Evaluations’, was already in its second phase of designing and tailoring appropriate interventions to curb drug use and risky sex. The complete report is due to be published by the end of 2007.

“By early to mid-2008 we should be able to make recommendations on how to respond to changing current drug-using and sexual-risk patterns,” Petersen said.

OUT is appealing to gay men and women, men who have sex with men, bisexual and transgender drug users to participate in the study.



[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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