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AIDS Group Told to End Classes

June 14, 2003|Charles Ornstein | Times Staff Writer

Four months after assuring a controversial San Francisco group that its HIV-prevention strategies were acceptable, federal health officials reversed themselves on Friday, saying its workshops appear to illegally promote sexual activity.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told the nonprofit Stop AIDS Project in a letter Friday to stop holding such workshops as "In our prime: Men for hire," which offers seven guidelines for "safe and friendly relations with escorts." The CDC also raised objections to a class that offers "ways to improve" anal sex.

If Stop AIDS does not drop these and similar workshops, CDC officials have threatened to cut off funding to the group. Stop AIDS, among the most prominent HIV-prevention groups in the country, relies on federal money for about a third of its $1.8-million annual budget.

In a separate letter, the CDC asked the San Francisco Department of Public Health to do a better job of monitoring HIV-prevention programs and rejecting those whose titles and descriptions "directly promote or encourage sexual activity."

Stop AIDS officials said they believe the CDC's missives came in response to political pressure from some congressional Republicans and the Bush administration.

"It seems that it's about politics, not about public health," said Shana Krochmal, a spokeswoman for the group, who called the ongoing attention "harassment."

She said all of the Stop AIDS programs were designed with input from local residents, and all were approved by a panel appointed by the health department.

CDC spokesman Tom Skinner declined to address whether agency director Dr. Julie Gerberding faced political pressure to take a tough stance against Stop AIDS.

The letters sent Friday "are pretty clear and they speak for themselves," he said. "What this is all about is developing programs that are effective but that are in accordance with the law."

Stop AIDS originally drew the scrutiny of the federal government about 20 months ago, when an initial audit found that the group appeared to directly promote sexual activity.

That audit was conducted by Janet Rehnquist, then the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Rehnquist is the daughter of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

In response to Rehnquist's report, HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson promised more widespread audits of HIV-prevention grants nationwide.

In February, Gerberding seemingly cleared Stop AIDS, concluding that "the design and delivery of Stop AIDS prevention activities was based on current and accepted behavioral science theories in the area of health promotion."

But Friday's action brings federal health authorities back to where they started, causing consternation among AIDS-prevention groups and San Francisco health officials.

Dr. Mitchell Katz, the city's health director, said he supports Stop AIDS and would use city money to pay for effective workshops if federal funds cannot be used.

"We in San Francisco believe that to reach the men who have sex with men who are at highest risk of HIV transmission, we need to speak the same language they do, and we need to have workshops that draw them in," Katz said.

The CDC's latest review of Stop AIDS came after a request from a legislative panel headed by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who has questioned the content, and especially the effectiveness, of certain programs.

In a letter sent to Souder on Friday, Gerberding said her agency plans to notify all HIV-prevention groups of their obligation not to promote sexual activity, whether heterosexual or homosexual. It will also "intensify oversight" to determine whether such groups are complying. Souder has received encouragement from an unlikely source, San Francisco activist Michael Petrelis, who is HIV-positive and faces criminal charges of harassing and stalking public health officials. Petrelis, who denies the charges, said he finds some of the Stop AIDS programs offensive, and he asks for concrete proof that they work.

Some HIV-prevention advocates nationally voiced outrage at the CDC's new stance.

Terje Anderson, executive director of the National Assn. of People with AIDS, wrote to Gerberding on Friday: "While the obsession with Stop AIDS programs that some have can probably best be characterized as prurient, the chilling impact it has on community-based prevention efforts across the country is frightening and unacceptable."

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