AIDS continues to be a serious health threat in New Haven, as the Connecticut Department of Public Health reported a 27-percent increase in diagnoses between 2003 and 2004. And on campus, University Health Services is concerned that a large number of Yale students have unprotected sex, ignoring the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
Though information about and resources for safe sex are not scarce at Yale — free condoms became available in every residential college entryway last spring — UHS Director Paul Genecin said health services encounters students with almost every type of STI, including HIV.
“At universities like Yale, the problem of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is greater than that which is statistically projected,” Genecin said.
He said UHS encourages all sexually active students to get tested, distributes free condoms and promotes protected sex through peer counseling and student mailings.
But despite efforts to increase awareness about the dangers of infection on campus, Genecin said, there has been a backslide in the number of students practicing safe sex.
“There are many students who may get tested frequently but avoid taking proper precautions before they engage in sexual activity,” he said. “We are extraordinarily concerned about this.”
Genecin said there is a disproportionately high number of Yale students reporting condom failure or breakage before getting tested for STIs and requesting the morning-after pill. He said UHS suspects that some of these students falsely report breakage when they have, in fact, had sex without a condom.
This carelessness poses a real threat because there have been diagnoses of HIV at Yale, as well as more common diseases, including chlamydia and syphilis, Genecin said.
Keely MacMillan ’05, the co-coordinator of Yale AIDS Watch, said students who are educated and informed about STIs can have a false sense of safety from infection.
“That even a few students should have HIV might come as a startling fact to many people, because generally students at Yale don’t believe they are vulnerable here,” she said.
College students do not fall within the age groups most affected by HIV, but according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about half of all new STIs occur among people ages 15 through 24.
The CDC reports that patients between the ages of 15 and 24 made up approximately four percent of the estimated cumulative number of AIDS diagnoses in the United States through 2003. And 3.3 percent of people living with AIDS in New Haven are between the ages of 13 and 29, according to the CDPH.
Leif Mitchell, the community research core assistant director at Yale’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, said he is acquainted with HIV positive undergraduate and graduate students and knows students who put themselves at risk by practicing unsafe sex.
AIDS is an even more serious problem for the city of New Haven at large, he said.
“New Haven has the second-highest number of reported HIV/AIDS cases in the state, second only to Hartford,” Mitchell said.
There have been 2,385 total reported cases of AIDS in the city of New Haven since 1980, according to the CDPH, compared with 2,962 cases in Hartford and 1,419 in Bridgeport.
Mitchell said intravenous drug users have one of the highest rates of HIV infection in New Haven.
Kaveh Khoshnood EPH ’89 GRD ’95, a CIRA investigator and assistant professor of epidemiology and public health, said he and his colleagues have conducted research showing that programs in which a city gives residents access to clean needles help prevent the spread of HIV. The New Haven Needle Exchange Program, established in 1990, became a model for programs in cities across the United States after new HIV infections decreased by one-third.
“Before these programs existed, what people didn’t fully appreciate was that many laws directly impacted the health of drug users by restricting their access to clean syringes,” Khoshnood said. “It seems oxymoronic given the dangers of intravenous drug use, but these programs promote healthier behavior by cutting down the black market for syringes and preventing the spread of disease.”
Matthew Lopes ’72, the coordinator of the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS in New Haven, said there has been a recent rise in reported AIDS cases among New Haven women, especially those who have male partners also participating in sexual activity with other men. Lopes said black and Latino residents are disproportionately affected by AIDS, accounting for 74 percent of reported cases while representing only 64 percent of the city’s population.
The task force is currently training staff to administer a test for HIV that yields results within an hour and extending hours of operation. Lopes said between 1,000 and 1,200 residents are tested for HIV by task force staff each year. In addition, outreach programs are planned to extend later into the night, so staff can distribute condoms and syringes during times when unsafe activity is most common.