Israel Promotes Condom Use Among Gays to Combat STDs

New data shows STDs are spreading in the male gay community, mainly in the Tel Aviv area.

The Health Ministry is working to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among gay men. As such, the ministry will start a publicity campaign within the gay community to encourage the use of condoms and reduce the use of certain types of drugs.

It will also distribute condoms, among other initiatives.

New data have shown that STDs are spreading in the male gay community, mainly in the Tel Aviv area.

An analysis of data from 2002-2008 of patients at the ministry's Levinsky clinic in Tel Aviv for treating STDs shows that out of the 3,755 patients treated, the occurrence of such diseases is significantly higher among homosexual men than heterosexual men.

Among gay men, AIDS rates were 4.5 times higher, gonorrhea infections of the penis 55 percent higher, and gonorrhea infections of the throat 16 times greater. Syphilis rates among gay men were found to be 2.3 times greater.

Only Chlamydia infections were higher among heterosexuals - 76 percent higher - the ministry data showed. The information was presented yesterday at the third Israeli conference on sexual health, organized by Medical Media.

Syphilis on the rise

Syphilis cases have risen by 250 percent in the past two years in the Tel Aviv district, with 76 percent of all new patients being gay - a majority of whom are also diagnosed as carrying the AIDS virus. The Health Ministry's Epidemiology Department said 203 people were diagnosed with syphilis in 2009, a figure similar to the previous year. Meanwhile, the number of Chlamydia patients in 2009 rose by 91 percent to 384, and the number of new gonorrhea patients rose 10 percent last year to 234.

Multiple partners

"Gays are exposed to more sexually transmitted diseases as a result of different sexual practices such as anal sex, which is more dangerous for STD infection than oral sex, and sexual relations with multiple partners at the same time," said Dr. Zohar Mor, the head of the Department of Tuberculosis and AIDS at the ministry's Public Health Service. Such men are also much more likely to contract other diseases, such as Hepatitis B, Mor claimed.

In light of these perceived trends, the ministry will soon publish a tender to select a firm to run an Internet campaign aimed at promoting the use of condoms in the gay community. In addition, the ministry will arrange to distribute condoms at entertainment spots frequented by homosexual men.

The ministry also announced that it will encourage homosexual partners to come to agreements regarding their sexual relationships.

"It is very important that partners know of other partners to sexual relations, and are aware of the need to use condoms," Mor said.

Quick HIV tests to be used in hospitals

The Health Ministry plans to introduce quick HIV tests into hospitals, cutting waiting time from three days to just 30 minutes. The advisory committee to the ministry's director-general, chaired by Professor Israel Yust, will meet next week to flesh out the recommendation it intends to give on the matter.

During the first stage of the initiative, fast checks will be carried out alongside the current ELISA tests, to ensure the accuracy of the results. "We have to make sure that a negative result is valid, so at first we'll request that both tests be done," Dr. Zohar Mor told Haaretz.

Rapid HIV tests are increasingly used in emergency rooms and clinics in the United States and Western Europe. In Israel, they are currently offered by the Israel Aids Task Force for NIS 150, with discounts to students, soldiers and minors, as well as at the Open House organization and some private clinics.

"The anxiety of waiting for days after the test is a major reason people avoid having the tests done in the first place," said Israel Aids Task Force director Jonathan Karni, who is also a member of the advisory committee. "We've been offering rapid, anonymous tests for the past four years, which produce results in just half an hour. I'm pleased that the committee has decided to look into adopting the model used by the task force."

"This model was almost illegal when we first used it in Israel and now it's being seriously considered on a national level," Karni said.