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AKRON, Ohio - A whopping 21 percent of state prisoners contract the AIDS virus while incarcerated, according to a Florida study.

Or maybe one-third of 1 percent do. That's what an unpublished Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found in Illinois.

Welcome to the state of research on HIV transmission in prison. There isn't much of it. What exists is wildly contradictory and often flawed.

Researchers have found outbreaks of HIV infection in prisons in Scotland and Australia.

Researchers in the United States have seen evidence that other sexually transmitted diseases are spreading behind bars.

But only seven formal studies have been conducted in this country.

Some, such as the early Florida study, were weighted toward those most likely to be infected, and thus were misleading.

Others were too conservative in their projections because they looked at inmates in prison early in the nation's AIDS epidemic, before the disease was so common.

A study to be published later this year is one of those. Christopher Krebs of the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina looked at inmates who were in one Southern state's prison system in 1978, before AIDS hit, and were still locked up two years later.

It found 33 inmates and former inmates who definitely got the virus in prison, and another 238 who might have gotten it there. Projected over the disease's history, Krebs estimated that a minimum of 792 HIV and AIDS cases in that state came from prison.

The unpublished CDC study was also conservative because it was conducted in the 1980s. The study tested 2,400 inmates who had been in prison at least three months, then tested them again a year later. It found 77 HIV-positive inmates the first year, and seven more the next.

The study is cited as proof that prison transmission is rare.

But Cal Skinner, a retired Illinois state legislator who made a crusade of AIDS and prison, said that's missing the point. Apply that "low" transmission rate to the entire prison population in Illinois, and it would add 100 new infections per year, he says.

"The study tells me that this is an identifiable breeding ground about which something could be done," he said.

Copyright © 2002 Akron Beacon Journal. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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