A new study shows the more a person drinks, the stronger their intention becomes to have unsafe sex. The spread of the HIV virus is mainly caused by unsafe sex and it is a major risk factor for the global burden of disease.

However the push and public perception against HIV has waned somewhat since its discovery in the 1980s and its incidence in developed countries, such as the US and UK has not been much reduced in the past decade. Obviously public health efforts need to be stepped up again.

There were uncertainties about the cause-and-effect relationship of heavy drinking and HIV infection. Researchers weren’t sure if alcohol consumption caused HIV via unsafe sex, or whether certain personality traits in individuals, such as sensation-seeking or a disposition to risky behavior in general, would lead to both alcohol use and unsafe sex.

The study, published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Addiction, presents the results of 12 experiments that analyzed this cause-and-effect relationship in a more systematic way.

Researchers collated their results and discovered that alcohol consumption affects decision-making, and that this impact rises with the amount of alcohol consumed.

Everyone knows that more alcohol tends to reduce sensible decision-making and cause people to lose their inhibitions, so their findings make perfect sense.

The study participants were randomly assigned to two groups in which they either consumed alcohol or did not. Then their intention to engage in unsafe sex was measured.

An increase in blood alcohol level of 0.1 mg/mL resulted in an increase of 5.0% (95% CI: 2.8% – 7.1%) in the indicated likelihood of engaging in unprotected sex. This result remained stable in sensitivity analyses aimed to correct for a potential publication bias.

Dr. J. Rehm, the Principal Investigator of the study stated that :

“Drinking has a causal effect on the likelihood to engage in unsafe sex, and thus should be included as a major factor in preventive efforts for HIV … This result also helps explain why people at risk often show this behavior despite better knowledge: alcohol is influencing their decision processes.”

It’s probably not widely considered by the general public that drinking can inhibit sensible sexual habits and put a person more at risk of HIV/AIDS infection. Thus, public awareness campaigns and prevention programs should shift their focus slightly as a result of the study.

If drinking and especially heavy drinking is reduced, it would not only avoid compromising the immune system but will also lower the chance of engaging in unsafe sex, thereby reducing the number of new HIV infections.

Younger people who tend to go binge drinking could also be made more aware of the possibility of unsafe sexual behaviors when drunk and it might help to curb behaviors even when they are drunk, much as anti drink driving campaigns persuaded people to take taxis or have an allocated driver.

Whilst it will be hard to stop people drinking and getting drunk, education can help inhibit drunk people, by placing the thought in the back of their mind to understand they are inebriated and take action accordingly, especially when it comes to sexual behavior.

Written by Rupert Shepherd