With Highest Rate of Cases, Navy Sees HIV Infections Rise

Last year, the Navy, whose HIV rate was already higher than that of any other branch of the US military, made 36 HIV diagnoses per 100,000 sailors tested. This was more than double the Navy's 1999 rate. Officials are not sure why the figure has risen, but they do know that most infected sailors acquired HIV through unprotected sex, not IV drug use.

Mirroring the general population, military personnel are no longer as frightened of HIV as they were during the epidemic's early years, said Dr. Rick Shaffer, who heads the Department of Defense's HIV/AIDS program in San Diego. Whether less fearful of infection or more optimistic HIV can be controlled, people may also be less willing to use condoms, he said.

Across the military, the rate of condom use is about 50 percent, according to Pentagon figures. In 2005, a survey found just under half of sexually active, unmarried sailors used a condom with their last partner. Among unmarried officers, condom use had declined from 40 percent in 2002 to 30 percent in 2005. Navy women reported a slight decrease in condom use in the same period.

Alcohol use is being studied for its connection with HIV infections in the military. Service members who are "sort of drunk" are especially worrisome, because they tend to lose inhibitions about risk, whereas the "overly drunk" have more limited sexual function, Shaffer said.

While the Navy does not keep data on its HIV-associated costs, it has cited a study's estimate that a year of treatment costs $14,000-$37,000. With about 560 sailors in HIV care last year, the Navy's cost would be $7.8 million-$20.7 million.