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Public Health. 2011 Nov;125(11):791-4. doi: 10.1016/j.puhe.2011.09.008. Epub 2011 Oct 11.

HIV knowledge and perceptions of risk in a young, urban, drug-using population.

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  • 1British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, St. Paul's Hospital, Vancouver, BC, Canada.



Educational programs targeted towards youth to prevent HIV transmission are based on a model that increased knowledge equals reduced risk behaviour. This study explored HIV knowledge among a cohort of young drug users, and their perceptions of HIV risk acquisition.


Between September 2005 and August 2009, youth who used illegal drugs were recruited into a prospective cohort known as the at-risk youth study (ARYS) in Vancouver, Canada. Participants completed an 18 item HIV Knowledge Questionnaire (HIV-KQ-18) and responses were scored dichotomously (i.e., ≥15 indicating high knowledge and <15 indicating low knowledge). We compared high- and low-scoring youth using Pearson's chi-square test and logistic regression. We also examined youths' perceptions of risk for acquiring HIV compared to their peers.


Of 589 youth recruited into ARYS, the mean age was 22 (interquartile range [IQR]: 20-24), 186 (31.6%) were female, and 143 (24.3%) were of Aboriginal ancestry. The median score on the HIV-KQ- 18 was 15 (IQR: 12-16). Internal reliability was high (Cronbach's α=0.82). The analyses demonstrated that youth with higher HIV knowledge were more likely to be older (adjusted odds ratio [AOR]=1.08, per year older p=0.031), completed high school (AOR=1.42, p=0.054), and engage in unprotected intercourse (AOR=1.73, p=0.023). The majority of respondents (77.6%) perceived themselves to be at lower risk for acquiring HIV in comparison to their peers.


HIV knowledge scores of participants were surprisingly low for an urban Canadian setting as was their HIV risk perception. Higher HIV knowledge was not associated with reduced sexual risk behaviour. Results demonstrate that education programs are not reaching or impacting this high-risk population. Given the complex forces that promote HIV risk behaviour, prevention programs should be fully evaluated and must recognize the unique characteristics of drug-using youth and factors that drive risk among this population.

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