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Risky Behavior

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To the editors:

I read with great interest Cecil Adams's column of December 9 regarding AIDS. I wish to respond to several points.

First, you discussed "high-risk behavior" within "high-risk groups." High-risk behavior is high-risk behavior, no matter who is participating! Many people who are perceived to be in "high-risk groups," such as gay people who are women, are among the least likely to ever contract the virus that causes AIDS. Conversely, heterosexual people who have anal intercourse are participating in the riskiest of behaviors. And people who share needles, no matter what their sexual orientation, and no matter whether they are shooting illegal drugs, steroids at the gym, or insulin, are also in severe risk of contracting the virus that causes AIDS.

Secondly, you indicated that HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) "doesn't show up in blood tests until 10 weeks after you've become contagious." The facts are that we cannot yet test for HIV, only for the antibodies to HIV, which take anywhere from 5 weeks to 6 months to develop in a person's body. However, a person is thought to be contagious from the moment of infection, and remains contagious for the rest of his/her life.

Finally, you said that "to avoid AIDS" one should "be picky about your partners." I can assure you that "being picky" does not insure health. HIV infection is invisible. There are no outward signs that a person, any person, even bankers, teachers, legislators, ministers, accountants, might be infected. "Being picky" won't save one's life. Using condoms EVERY TIME a person is sexual, limiting the number of sex partners, and avoiding the exchange of bodily fluids are the best methods in sexually active people to reduce the risk of contracting AIDS.

AIDS is a terminal disease from which people suffer tremendously before they die. It's not curable, but it is preventable. Your readers deserve to know the facts that will save their lives.

Ronni L. Sanlo

AIDS/ARC Surveillance

Jacksonville, Florida

Cecil Adams replies:

You have grossly misinterpreted my remarks. Let me respond point by point:

(1) Neither I nor any reputable authority has ever suggested that lesbians are at high risk for AIDS. The group at highest risk is gay and bisexual men.

(2) I purposely stayed away from any discussion of the risk involved in anal intercourse. Anal intercourse is believed to be more dangerous than traditional intercourse, but how much more dangerous is not known, and I didn't want to muck up the numbers with any more guesswork than I had to.

(3) You missed the point of my remark about HIV not showing up in blood tests for ten weeks. What I was trying to get across was that testing negative doesn't necessarily mean somebody has a clean bill of health, nor that having sex with that person is risk free. The tests miss a percentage of people who have HIV.

(4) Your idea of "safe sex" focuses mostly on techniques, a view that is now considered obsolete. The emerging consensus is that the safest approach is to be selective about your partners. The wisest thing that people in low-risk groups can do is to confine their sexual encounters to others in low-risk groups--i.e., no gay or bisexual men, intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs, etc. As a practical matter, this means not going to bed with somebody you picked up in a bar or that you otherwise know nothing about. To suggest that using condoms is in any way a substitute for "being picky" is irresponsible.

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