MILWAUKEE, Wis. - Computers are spreading a different kind of virus these days: HIV, the one that causes AIDS.
Internet chat rooms have become the modern equivalent of the backrooms and bathhouses where the disease spread during the 1980s, health officials said at an AIDS conference last week.
A nationwide survey of nearly 3,000 users of a Web site popular with gay men found that 82 percent met sex partners online, and 60 percent reported having unprotected sex with them.
"Almost one-quarter reported 100 or more sexual partners," said Sabina Hirshfield of the Medical and Health Research Association of New York, which did the study with Columbia University and others.
Health officials say the findings fit a pattern of resurgence of risky sex at a time when more people have HIV than ever, thanks to drugs that keep them alive, enabling them to spread the virus to uninfected people. An estimated 900,000 Americans have HIV, including 280,000 who don't know it.
"This is one of many examples. We're seeing a return in some groups of very high-risk behaviors," Ron Valdiserri, deputy director of the AIDS prevention program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said of the Internet study.
Other examples reported at the conference:
One-fourth of HIV-infected former prisoners in a North Carolina study said they'd had unprotected sex within a month of being released; 31 percent said they thought it was likely they had infected their partners.
More than 11 percent of people visiting the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency room in summer 2001 tested positive for HIV; 24 percent of them didn't know they were infected. One-fourth who knew they were infected said they were having unprotected sex.
AIDS cases increased during 2001 in the United States for the first time in several years.
Syphilis rates rose in 2001 for the first time in more than a decade.
The number of diagnosed HIV cases rose 8 percent from 1999 to 2001 in a group of 25 states with long-standing reporting programs with the CDC.
"It is still too early to tell whether this represents a reversal of previous AIDS trends," Valdiserri said. "Nevertheless, this trend is worrisome."
Complacency about the risk and the belief that AIDS isn't a life-threatening disease may be to blame, he said. Some point out that many young people didn't witness the AIDS deaths of a decade ago. Also, many people think AIDS deaths are just a problem overseas, experts say.
The Internet study involved gay.com, a general-interest gay Web site that is not sex-oriented, Hirshfield said. Researchers posted banners on the site asking for people to complete a 60-item health survey.
Of the nearly 3,000 who did, 7.6 percent said they had HIV, 82 percent said they met partners online, and "more than half of the men reported having unprotected anal intercourse," the riskiest kind of sex, she said.