Crystal meth use is on the rise according to three recent surveys and there may be a link between crystal meth bingeing and the recent rise in HIV infections, the head of AFAO has warned.

What we are now concerned about is there seems to be, although in very small figures, a bit of an association between crystal meth use -¦ and really rampant sex, the CEO of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, Don Baxter, told ABC Radio on World AIDS Day.

We are concerned that a number of these new infections actually come from episodes of crystal bingeing, Baxter said.

Baxter’s comments follow data released at last month’s Australian Society for HIV Medicine conference, which revealed 15.9 percent of newly diagnosed HIV-positive men surveyed were using crystal meth at the time they believed they became infected.

But associate professor Andrew Grulich of the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research urged caution, pointing out that the same study also showed that 21 percent of gay men surveyed said they were on ecstasy at the time.

Drugs have always been associated, whether causally or not -¦ in HIV infections, Grulich told the Star. Crystal doesn’t stand out above other drugs. It’s just that if we asked that question three years ago, crystal was barely around. It’s quite commonly used now.

Specific qualities unique to crystal may justify the attention, however, such as the drug’s provision of a sense of invincibility, the removal of sexual inhibition and its long period of effectiveness.

The problem is that you can’t demonise a drug, but there are certain things that are particular to certain drugs, the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre’s Paul Dillon warned.

There is a physical dependence on crystal that you don’t have when you use ecstasy. Ecstasy is self-limited. As a result you can’t use ecstasy every single day. But with crystal there’s the potential to do that, Dillon said.

Dr Robert Finlayson of the Taylor Square Medical Clinic told the Star that health problems associated with crystal had been growing over the last two years. We’re seeing an increasing number of people requesting assistance in stopping using, or diminishing their use [of crystal meth] when their use gets out of control, Dr Finlayson said.

As far as reckless sexual behaviour goes, this is difficult in that I think most people who are reckless on crystal meth are reckless at other times as well.

I think along with other drugs that contribute to disinhibition, crystal meth in particular seems to make some people sexually insatiable, and many gay men do report that they become much more of a -˜bottom’ and seek partner after partner after partner, so certainly this may contribute to new HIV infections and other sexually transmissible diseases, he said.

But if the number of partners increases dramatically under the influence of crystal meth, that obviously increases risk. I think as with any other drug you need to have really clear boundaries about what you are prepared to do or not do sexually, and that you can stay mindful of that no matter what drug is influencing you, Finlayson said.

The Health in Men (HIM) studies released by the National Centre in HIV Social Research show 12 percent of Sydney gay men sampled (including HIV-positive and HIV-negative men) used crystal meth in the last six months in 2002, up from 8.6 percent in 2000. The Illicit Drug Reporting System (IDRS) study released last week by the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC) showed the availability and use of crystal methamphetamine had increased around the country among injecting drug users. The Party Drug Initiative study also released by NDARC revealed up to a third to three-quarters of participants surveyed, across the nation, had used crystal meth.

Adrian Lovney, president of the AIDS Council of NSW, told the Star the jury is still out on the relationship between crystal use and HIV infection, although he admitted there was considerable anecdotal evidence that there may be some connection.

It is an area we need to look at but we need to make sure that we’re actually operating on the basis of sound data and good research. It’s clear that the researchers are not yet agreed on the extent of the problem, Lovney said.

Crystal meth addiction is proving to be a serious health issue among gay men in the United States. In October US$425,000 of public health funds were allocated specifically to fight crystal meth addiction among gay men, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The Chronicle also cited three crystal meth treatment programs operating exclusively for gay and bisexual men in San Francisco, with Narcotics Anonymous chapters specifically aimed at crystal meth addiction reported in Seattle, Palm Springs, Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York.

Lovney said ACON recently established a working group to look at the issue.

The other issue I guess for us is that some of this work has been difficult to fund. We’ve been talking to the NSW government for a while about funding a more substantial program of work, Lovney said.

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