Does Alcohol Use Increase AIDS Virus Transmission? New SU Research Seeks Links, Ways to Help

Dec 5, 2018

Syr Univ Psych Professor Sarah Woolf-King conducting research into alcohol use and AIDS-virus transmission, shown here at World AIDS Day event.
Credit Sarah Woolf-King

Some Syracuse residents living with HIV are part of a study to find out how heavy drinking might be increasing the chances of passing along the disease.  A Syracuse University researcher wants to see if there are ways to reduce the risk.  

Alcohol might be the forgotten drug of the HIV epidemic.  Sarah Woolf King wants to find out how drinking affects the sexual behaviors of people with the AIDS virus that could lead to more transmission of the disease.  She’s a Psychology Professor and researcher at Syracuse University … and says past studies have shed some light.

“Drinkers are more likely to engage in sexual risk behavior.  They’re about 60% less likely to be adherent to HIV medications.  And we also n that no alcohol intervention for people living with HIV has shown long-term reductions in drinking quantity or significant impact on HIV-related outcomes.”

What she’s trying to find out is, if there could be interventions that do effectively reduce the risks of passing on the disease among heavy drinkers with H-I-V.  To do that, She needs to drill down further into specific behaviors.

“Is alcohol more likely to result in sexual risk behavior in a casual partnership versus an ongoing partnership, for example, or in the context of other substance use.”

Graduate students Alan Sheinfil (R) and Jeremy Ramos help conduct interviews for the study in this Psych & Health lab
Credit Chris Bolt/WAER News / WAER FM

Woolf-King and a team of graduate students have about 90 participants and are seeking more.  Doctoral student Alan Sheinfil has the task of finding them … and asking some pretty personal questions.

“So we’re interested in things like depression, individual differences in people’s propensity to engage in sexual risk taking.  We go (over) every single day of the past month, ‘How much did you drink?  Did you engage in sexual activity that day?  Did you use a condom that time?’  So we really get into nitty-gritty details with these folks.”

Sheinfil has actually sat in the corridors of health clinics to try and find participants.  Fellow Graduate Student Jeremy Ramos has gone to community events and fundraisers for HIV/AIDS service organizations.  He finds oftentimes people are interested in the research.

Woolf-King and students go to community events to seek participants and to be part of a supportive community.
Credit Sarah Woolf-King

“The most negative reaction we’ve had is people not wanting to engage….  But usually people do understand that this is something important and that this is something that public health should be concerned with: how can we help people living with HIV … live their lives in the best way possible.”  

The study can also shed light upon the degree to which heavy drinking impacts someone taking the medications that suppress the AIDS virus, which in turn helps suppress the risk of transmission.  Woolf-King says people might just forget to take their prescriptions or falsely believe that the drugs and alcohol have bad interactions.

“There are decades of studies we’ve discovered correlating alcohol with ART adherence and there’s an assumption that it’s causing poor ART (Anti-Retroviral Therapy) adherence.  But there are no studies that have looked at this in a way that can answer questions about causality.  We feel we need to have answers to those questions in order to design efficacious interventions.”


One study is called the IN-VOICE study, looking at the relationship between substance use and sexual behavior.  It focuses only on HIV-positive men who are sexually active with other men and who regularly consume alcohol.

A related study, the ACCEPT study, on which Woolf-King is a co-principal investigator with Psychology Professor Stephen Maisto, will work with a group of people living with HIV to develop an intervention that can reduce alcohol use, especially use that is triggered by emotions such as stress or trauma.              

The long term goals are to find out how much heavy drinking affects unprotected sex in different settings among men with H-I-V.  And if interventions might be developed that reduce heavy drinking and ultimately the risk of passing on the AIDS virus. 


About 30 people locally are part of the study, coming into the SU lab for interviews and responding to daily questions about their behaviors.  The group is seeking more participants, though Sheinfil says not everyone interested will fit the criteria.

Anyone interested in participating in the study or finding out more information can call 315-443-2451.