Poll Sparks Fear of Rising HIV Rate Among Gay Israelis

Activists issue call to 'stop burying our heads in the sand and take responsibility.'

Members of the Israel AIDS Task Force fear a steep rise in HIV infection rates, in light of a recent survey by the organization conducted among members of an Israeli dating site for gays.

Of the 989 men who participated in the online poll, 48 percent reported having unprotected sex at least once this year, 34 percent admitted to a small number of such encounters, 6 percent said they used condoms half the time and 8 percent said they use a condom less than half the time.

The findings were published ahead of a conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday organized by the task force under the name, “The Community Takes Responsibility.” The poll, taken among users of the Atraf dating site and other websites for men who have sex with men, was supervised by the director of the HIV/AIDS Center at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, Dr. Itzchak Levy.

The survey found that the younger men were when they began having sex with men, the less likely they are to use a condom. The use of alcohol and other mood-altering drugs raised the likelihood of having unprotected sex by 55 percent, according to the study. In addition, men are less likely to use condoms during sexual encounters in gay saunas and so-called darkrooms.

Having multiple partners also increases the chances of unprotected sex: Men who reported having more than five sexual partners a year reported having sex without a condom at double the frequency of respondents with fewer partners.

Self-described hypochondriacs reported having unprotected sex 56 percent less frequently than the other respondents. And men who were infected with HIV were twice as likely as other respondents to use condoms.

The number of new HIV infections in Israel has been rising for several years. About 30 of the new carriers are men who have sex with men, compared to just 10 percent in 2002. Activists with the AIDS Task Force worry that within a few years the percentage of HIV carriers among gay men in Israel will catch up to that of other countries.

For example, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while men who have sex with men represent just 2 percent of the U.S. population, they constitute 52 percent of all the people living with HIV in the United States.

Men who have sex with men accounted for 73 percent of new HIV cases in Germany in 2011, while in England that figure is estimated at 40 percent.

Levy estimates that one out of every 10 gay men in Tel Aviv is infected with HIV, and that every week at least three gay men are infected with the virus.

“The gay community can take responsibility and stop this situation, and we have proven that in the past. Between the 1990s and the early 2000s we halted the increase in new cases in the community, until in 2002 only 30 new HIV carriers were discovered in the gay community,” says Adir Yanko, coordinator of the task force's prevention and information group.

“We have to stop burying our heads in the sand and start talking about the subject openly," Yanko says, adding, "The community must put the issue on the agenda and take individual and communal responsibility. The figures demonstrate unequivocally that not every HIV carrier is gay, but there is a worrisome trend in which an increasing number of gays are being infected.”

According to Levy, “The data accord with the international trends. While in recent years in the Western world there has been a significant decline in the number of new cases, the main community that continues to suffer from particularly high rates of HIV infection is the gay community, and Israel is no exception. Despite the relatively high awareness of the consequences of unprotected sex in the gay community, the data indicate unequivocally that in effect about half the community has unprotected sex with varying frequency, and we have to pay attention to that. The situation that we want to prevent, in which many gay men will be HIV-positive, is not a matter for future predictions, it’s already here.”

Nir Kafri