A sudden, surprising increase in HIV infections has been discovered among male black college students in North Carolina, and officials fear the same is probably happening across the South. The upsurge is driven by young men having risky sexual encounters with other men. Typically they do not consider themselves to be gay or bisexual and may even have girlfriends, as well. "It's a public-health emergency. I don't know any other way to put it," said Peter Leone, HIV medical director at the state health department. The increase was first noticed in late 2002, but officials now believe it began in mid 2001 and is still continuing. The North Carolina researchers found 84 newly infected male college students over the past three years, 73 of them black. Only one black student admitted using injected drugs, and just two said they had sex only with women. The rest apparently were infected through sex with men.
The high rate of HIV infection among U.S. blacks has been one of the most striking difficulties of AIDS prevention. Blacks are 11 times more likely than white Americans to become infected with HIV. Even though they make up 12% of the population, they account for 39% of AIDS cases and 54% of new HIV infections. Among black men, the leading cause of infection is sex with other men. Experts have long lamented the high rate of risky sex among gay black men. Poverty is often listed as a strong contributor, so the new findings among relatively well-off college students were unexpected. "We are very concerned about it," said Ron Valdiserri, deputy HIV chief at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Most Americans would not think about college students as a high-risk group." Indeed, a CDC study on 10 campuses in the 1990s found a very low infection rate.