August 13, 2001

U.S. AIDS Findings Cause Concern

By ERIN McCLAM Associated Press from the  NEW YORK TIMES



ATLANTA -- The declines in the number of Americans contracting AIDS and those dying of the disease are leveling off, signaling a disturbing turning point in the 20-year epidemic, federal health officials said Monday.

AIDS cases and deaths peaked in the early 1990s, then fell steadily as new, more effective drugs took hold. But both statistics have been nearly flat since 1998, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The findings, released at a national HIV prevention conference here, bolster a concern expressed by health officials who marked AIDS' 20th anniversary earlier this year: Many Americans, numbed by news of effective AIDS drugs, have become complacent about the disease.

"We really are at a very critical point in this epidemic," said Dr. Helene Gayle, the CDC's AIDS chief. "We must work to ensure that the plateaus that we've reached will not remain plateaus -- or worse, given some of the trends that we're seeing, evolve into a newly expanding epidemic."

The number of new AIDS cases reported each quarter fell from more than 20,000 in 1993 to about 10,000 in 1998. And AIDS deaths fell from about 12,000 each quarter in 1994 to about 4,000 in 1998.

But the figures have stabilized and have been nearly identical each quarter since mid-1998, the CDC said.

The statistics suggest that the next wave of progress in fighting AIDS lies in expanding HIV testing, improving access to quality care and finding new treatments for patients in whom the virus resists drugs, Gayle said.

New studies released Monday highlight two key demographic groups _ young gay men and poor black women -- who are at alarming risk for becoming infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

A new study in Seattle found a sharp increase in the number of HIV-positive gay men reporting unprotected anal sex, from 10 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2000.

And a study of mostly low-income black women in Atlanta found that almost half had not used a condom in their most recent sexual encounter, and 60 percent did not know their partner's HIV status.

AIDS was first identified in 1981. Through the end of last year, almost 775,000 cases had been reported in the United States. Nearly 450,000 of those patients have died.