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Home > Publications > NIDA Notes > Vol. 17, No. 2 > Research Findings

High-Risk Sex Is Main Factor in HIV Infection for Men and Women Who Inject Drugs
Research Findings
Vol. 17, No. 2 (May 2002)

By Robert Mathias, NIDA NOTES Staff Writer

A 10-year study has found that the biggest predictor of HIV infection for both male and female injecting drug users (IDUs) is high-risk sexual behavior, not sharing needles used to inject drugs. High-risk homosexual activity was the most important factor in HIV transmission for men; high-risk heterosexual activity was most significant for women. Risky drug-use behaviors also were strong predictors of HIV transmission for men but were less significant for women, the study found.

"In the past, we assumed that IDUs who were HIV-positive had been infected with the virus through needle-sharing," says Dr. Steffanie Strathdee of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who conducted the NIDA-funded study. "Our analysis indicates that sexual behaviors, which we thought were less important among IDUs, really carry a heavy weight in terms of risks for HIV seroconversion for both men and women."


High-Risk Sexual Behavior Leading Cause of HIV Infection Among Injection Drug Users in 10-Year Study
High-risk sexual behavior played the biggest role in HIV infection for both male and female injection drug users (IDUs) in this study of 1,800 IDUs. Significant risk factors for men were high-risk homosexual activity, using shooting galleries, and sharing needles used to inject drugs with multiple partners. For women, high-risk heterosexual activity, as indicated by reporting a recent sexually transmitted disease (STD), was the most significant cause of HIV infection.


In the study, Dr. Strathdee led a team of researchers who analyzed data collected every 6 months from 1,800 IDUs in Baltimore from 1988 to 1998. Participants had to be at least 18 years of age when they entered the study, have a history of injection drug use within the previous 10 years, and not have HIV infection or AIDS. More than 90 percent of the participants said they had injected drugs in the 6 months prior to enrolling in the study. In their semiannual interviews, study participants reported their recent drug use and sexual behavior and submitted blood samples to determine if they had become HIV-positive since their last visit.

Researchers analyzed the role of homosexual activity in HIV seroconversions among male IDUs in the study, after taking into account other factors that increased their risk of acquiring HIV, such as their drug injection practices. This analysis revealed that the incidence of HIV infection among male IDUs who had engaged in homosexual activity within the previous 6 months was 10.44 percent a year, compared to 3.01 percent among men who did not report having homosexual sex.

Visiting "shooting galleries," where drug abusers gather to obtain and inject drugs, sharing needles used to inject drugs with multiple partners, and injecting drugs daily also were independently linked to significantly higher rates of HIV infection among men in the study. Men who said they had used shooting galleries had an HIV incidence rate of 6.28 percent per year, and men who shared needles with more than one partner had a rate of 5.52 percent per year. These infection rates were more than double those found among men who had not engaged in these behaviors. Men who injected drugs at least once a day had HIV infection rates of 4.68 percent, more than one and one-half times the rate among men who had injected less than once a day.

Sharing needles also increased risk of HIV infection among women IDUs. However, high-risk heterosexual activity was a much more important risk factor for these women, the study found. In fact, other than being younger than 30 years -- which independently predicted HIV infection for both sexes -- high-risk heterosexual activity was the main predictor of HIV seroconversion among women. Women who reported having a recent sexually transmitted disease (STD), an indicator of unprotected sex, had more than 2.5 times the rate of HIV infection of women who did not have an STD.

"Both homosexual men and heterosexual women IDUs appear to be at dual risk for becoming infected with HIV," Dr. Strathdee says. "In previous studies by our group, being a gay male IDU was closely linked to visiting shooting galleries and sharing needles. Heterosexual women IDUs tend to have more of an overlap in their sexual partners and their drug use than men do. This puts them at increased HIV risk because they are sharing needles and having unprotected sex with a partner who is more likely to be infected with the virus.

"HIV prevention programs have done a good job in reducing needle-sharing and other drug-use behaviors that spread the virus among IDUs," Dr. Strathdee says. "However, our study indicates that HIV prevention programs can achieve better results by also addressing sexual risk behaviors among IDUs. A multifaceted approach is needed that screens both men and women IDUs for STDs at places where they go, such as needle-exchange programs and methadone treatment programs, and provides comprehensive treatment at those sites.

"HIV prevention efforts also should be gender-specific, targeting the important differences we have found in sexual and drug-use behaviors among men and women that increase their risk of acquiring and transmitting HIV," Dr. Strathdee says. "For example, women IDUs in stable relationships could be shown how to negotiate condom use with their partners and offered couple counseling to educate both partners about HIV risks associated with their drug use and sexual behaviors. We need more research to identify and evaluate HIV prevention approaches for male IDUs who have sex with men to determine what kinds of interventions might work."


  • Strathdee, S.A., et al. Sex differences in risk factors for HIV seroconversion among injection drug users. Archives of Internal Medicine 161:1281-1288, 2001.


Volume 17, Number 2 (May 2002)

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