Less Fear of HIV is Pushing up Infection Rates Among Gay Men | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.12.2005
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Less Fear of HIV is Pushing up Infection Rates Among Gay Men

How AIDS is spread is no longer a mystery to most of the West, but in 2005 the number of infections in Germany rose by 20 percent -- even more in the gay community. What is making many gay men throw caution to the wind?

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There have been over 1,000 new HIV infections in Germany in 2005

Michael was in his early twenties when AIDS first caused a panic in the gay scene. Everyone talked about the epidemic that killed thousands. Yet many men like Michael still didn't protect themselves by using condoms.

"In some ways men are all the same, and when it comes to sex they are all equally stupid," he said. "You tell yourself you'd be a super responsible gay man, but then situations arise in which you do it without a condom anyway."

Though he's lucky enough to have access to effective antiviral medication that his health insurance pays for and a small state pension because he is too sick to work, Michael, now 42 years old, said he realizes that eventually he will probably die of an AIDS-related disease.

Some believe HIV is not an issue

Kinder im AIDS Krankenhaus in Brasilien

There are about 2.2 million children infected with HIV around the world

According to a report from the Robert Koch Institute, the federal government's disease control center, 1,164 Germans were infected in the first half of 2005 with the virus. Almost 60 percent of new infections were among homosexual men. Some 45,000 of the 40 million people living with HIV around the world are German.

Christopher Knoll, a psychologist at Munich's AIDS-Hilfe, an HIV/AIDS support center, said more gay men are being infected because they no longer consider the disease a serious threat.

"There are these images in the heads of young gay men that HIV carriers are 35 and older, wearing leather jackets and a beard, and that you don't need to worry about anyone who doesn't fit this cliché," Knoll said. "They think they don’t have to protect themselves because HIV is not an issue. That is absolutely fatal."

Like Michael, Thomas, who also did not want his last name published, grew up hearing about the dangers of HIV in the media, but unlike older gay men, he never met anyone who was positive -- let alone ill with AIDS -- and felt it was something that happened to other people.

AIDS Plakat in Deutschland

Ignorance kills

"You know it’s there, and you do think of it, but you don’t talk about it openly," he said. "You meet your friends for a drink after work, and then maybe, you go for dinner. But this topic is not discussed over dinner -- no one wants to talk about it."

'I think about death every day'

Thomas said he and his partner were faithful and practiced safe sex at first, but stopped after they fell in love. He said he was completely unprepared for the bad news that would leave him wondering what he could still achieve in his life.

"When I got the positive result of the second test I was absolutely crushed," he said. "And now I ask myself every day how life is going to continue. I even wonder what my death is going to be like. I think about death every day."

Love, lust and alcohol are the most dangerous obstacles to protection against HIV, according to Dr. Werner Becker, who heads one of Germany's largest gay practices. He tries to strengthen his patients for situations when they are tempted not to use protection.

"Some worry that a condom may signal that they are worried about the other man being infected or even signal that they themselves are infected," he said. "The symbolism of the condom in sexual communication is strong and varied."

Many no longer afraid of infection

Werbeplakat für Kondome

Fewer people are afraid of having unsafe sex

Knoll, of Munich's AIDS-Hilfe, said he doesn't know how to convince a generation of increasingly careless gay men back to responsible, self-protective behavior.

"There are many out there who say, we just have to inflict fear in people again," he said. "But in the 1980s no one inflicted fear, they simply were afraid. Today they no longer are."

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