By Dawn Wolfe
On Feb. 11, New York City health officials announced the discovery of a rare, highly-drug resistant strain of HIV. According to the report in the Feb. 12 New York Times, the strain led to the development of AIDS in a man who was diagnosed with the disease within months of his infection. Worse, the form of HIV with which he was infected is resistant to three of the four classes of drugs that are currently being used to treat the disease.
Worse still – the unidentified man reportedly had unprotected sex "on multiple occasions" while using crystal meth, leading to the real possibility that the new strain could spread widely within the gay community, and from there to other groups, in a very short time.
The New York announcement has been controversial. In follow-up stories in the New York Times and Bay Windows, a Boston-area LGBT newspaper, health experts have said that, rather than having a new strain of the disease that automatically leads to rapid onset of AIDS, the New York City man may simply have been more susceptible to a rapid onset. While it can take up to ten or more years to develop AIDS, there have always been victims whose general health caused a more rapid onset.
Nor is the emergence of drug-resistant strains of HIV a completely new phenomenon. On Feb. 17, Bay Windows reported that the Massachusetts Department of Public health began an initiative two months ago to track the number of patients in that state who are newly infected with drug-resistant strains of HIV.
But whether the strain discovered in the New York City man is a new "superbug" or not, the increasing emergence of drug-resistant strains of the disease, coupled with the growing popularity of crystal meth use during sex parties where gay men engage in unprotected sex, is a recipe for disaster for the gay community.
A return to the nightmare days of HIV/AIDS?
Loretta Davis-Satterla, the director of the Michigan Department of Community Health's Division of HIV/AIDS & STDs, agreed that the emergence of drug-resistant strains of HIV could lead to a return of the days when HIV infection condemned victims to an early, and unpleasant, death sentence.
"Certainly if someone's infected with a strain that's already resistant to the various classes of medications then you definitely have a difficult time, some difficult choices to make, and probably a much shortened life," she said.
Davis-Satterla stressed the importance of prevention, both for people who are HIV negative and for those who have already contracted one form of the virus.
"I think that the thing is that the people understand that this (infection with a drug-resistant strain of HIV) can happen, and protect yourself," she said.
"We've always talked to the people who are HIV positive about whether they're having unprotected sex – the possibility of becoming infected with a more virulent strain," she said.
She added that adherence to medications is one way that people who are already infected can cut down on the appearance of resistant strains of HIV. Adherence to medications is important "for their own health, as well as for the health of those that they may partner with."
A disaster in the making
Craig Covey, executive director of the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in Ferndale, said that to date his agency is unaware of any possible new strains of HIV showing up in Michigan.
However, Covey said that his agency is all too aware of the potential for "a disaster for gay men" due to the combination of drug use and unsafe sex.
"MAPP has been working hard since last summer on the rapidly growing problem of crystal meth use in Michigan by gay men, particularly as it relates to use with Viagra to engage in unprotected intercourse with multiple partners," Covey said.
And Covey had harsh words, and a warning, for HIV positive and negative gay men alike who continue neglecting the community's safety.
"It is time for our community to take a hard look at itself, and discuss the ways that we are allowing dangerous activity to destroy lives. Sexual freedom and choice is sacred in our community, but responsibility to ourselves and others is being ignored," he said. "Using speed along with Viagra and engaging in marathon unprotected sex is more than dysfunctional and suicidal behavior. It is selfish, hateful, and dangerous, and some day our community needs to wake up to these issues."
He added, "If the gay community does not police itself, someone else may have to, and the price could be the very freedom we cherish."