(CNSNews.com) - The federal government has spent $550,496 on a project that involved conducting “focus groups and in-depth interviews” with American long-haul truck drivers to learn about their sex lives in order to assess their risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.
The project has failed to find any instances of HIV among the truck drivers studied.
“Several international studies have documented substantial levels of sexual risk behaviors and high rates of STI and HIV amongst long-distance truck drivers living in diverse settings including India, Bangladesh, South Africa and Thailand,” says the abstract for the grant published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “In the United States, while it is known that STI and HIV cases are frequently concentrated around major transportation routes, less is known regarding specific HIV/STI risk behaviors and HIV/STI prevalence amongst the over 3 million truck drivers in this country.”
To gather information about the “risk behaviors” of truck drivers, the study proposed doing five things, starting with the focus groups and interviews: “1) To perform focus groups and in-depth interviews based on the constructs of the transtheoretical model with long-haul truck drivers to guide development of both a behavioral risk assessment instrument and an acceptable HIV/STI screening protocol for long-haul truckers; 2) To perform in-depth interviews with trucking industry executives to determine barriers to routine HIV/STI assessment and screening of their employees; 3) To adapt existing theory-based measures of behavioral risk based on focus group data from long-haul truck drivers so as to reflect the attitudes and culture of this understudied population; 4) To estimate the prevalence of key sexual risk behaviors and examine the predictors of those prevalence rates; and 5) To determine the prevalence of HIV, N. gonorrhoeae, and C. trachomatis, in long-haul truck drivers.”
The NIH Web pages for the grant do not say how much federal money was spent on the study, but NIH spokeswoman Charlotte Armstrong told CNSNews.com that $550,496 has been awarded for the research to date. The grant was made by the National Institute of Mental Health, a division of the NIH. The project began in September 2005 and is scheduled to end in August 2010.
“Overall, we have not found really significant numbers of STDs, and we haven’t found any HIV,” Dr. Laura Bachmann, the principal investigator on the project, told CNSNews.com. “Part of the issue is: I moved in the mean time, so that’s why it’s taking awhile to get it done.”
Dr. Bachmann began the research when she was an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Alabama-Birmingham and is continuing the study in her current position as an associate professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest University, Wake Forest, N.C.
The research is a “preliminary type study,” Dr. Bachmann said, designed to assess the risk level and prevalence of sexual infections through focus groups and in-depth interviews with truck drivers. Screening of truckers has been “episodic,” not ongoing and continuous, she said, and she and her research team have interviewed around 300 truckers since 2005.
The project was designed “to figure out what the level of risk was going on, and the prevalence of these different infections,” Dr. Bachmann told CNSNews.com.
“In terms of the prevalence of infections, we’re not seeing, as I mentioned, significant numbers of STDs or HIV, and so now the issue is: Do we need to change the sampling strategy because we’re not finding a lot of misbehavior or STDs in our small sample--which is opportunistic screening and kind of getting drivers as you encounter them?" said Dr. Bachmann. "So it may be that some other type of screening strategy or way to approach them would find a different population than what we have found.”
CNSNews.com asked Dr. Bachmann if the study was an appropriate use of taxpayer funds.
“I think that HIV and STDs are significant public health concerns, and there’s been data from, primarily, other countries, but many other countries--and then some domestic studies--that have suggested that it could be a significant problem,” she said.
“[T]hey’re infections that you can treat, and if you find out, even though you can’t cure HIV, if you find out about it early enough then you can prevent complications and then further transmission which is a public health threat,” she said.
“In addition, there’s a lot of other health issues that drivers face because the lifestyle’s difficult, and we also have described some of those even though it didn’t start out being the focus of the study when we met with the drivers, and they gave their input in how we did the screening protocol. They wanted general health checks. And so we did that,” she said.
She added: “I think it’s an important population for the economy of the United States, and then as well for safety on the roads. So I think there’s multiple things that can come out of this in terms of, even though we didn’t find the level of risk that we thought may be going on.”
“Once again I don’t know, I can’t say that the study settles that absolutely, but we also learned that we can work with trucking companies, that you can work with truck stops to access drivers, and that most drivers are willing to participate,” said Dr. Bachmann.
Dr. Bachmann pointed out that this was part of NIH’s “R34” program—or what the NIH calls on its Web site a “clinical trial planning grant.” “[S]o the point of it is to figure out which strategies work before you do a bigger study," she said.
When asked if she is planning to reapply for a new grant soon, Dr. Bachmann said, “Not right now.”