New U.S. HIV Cases Rise, Spark Yawns

It seems that complacency is getting the better of the fight against HIV/AIDS.

After years of relative stability, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in February that new HIV/AIDS cases in the United States have risen for the first time since 1993.

Between 2000 and 2001, the estimated number of new diagnosed adolescent and adult cases rose from 40,766 to 41,311 — approximately 1 percent.

The rise was small, but researchers warned that it could be a harbinger of worse times ahead and a signal that americans are no longer so afraid of HIV. One of the greatest obstacles doctors and health officials are battling in the war on virus is complacency — a perception that no one really dies from the disease and that the illness is no longer a real problem in the United States because advances in treatment have enabled people to live much longer.

"It's been a complacency on many levels," said Dr. Donna Futterman, pediatrician and director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

"It's been a complacency in the perception that AIDS is not a problem here anymore, but something exotic that's out in Africa," she said. "There's been a complacency in getting AIDS education out there. And there's been complacency with us in the medical community. Most of us have relied on patients to come to us when we really have to go out there and find them."

Off the U.S. Radar Screen

Health care providers have been frustrated in their efforts to get AIDS prevention measures out in the public in consistent massive campaigns.

In the early years of AIDS' nearly 22-year history in the United States, AIDS was front-page news, at the forefront of American consciousness. From the thousands of lost lives — which included the deaths of Hollywood stars such as Rock Hudson and The Brady Bunch's Robert Reed to the high-profile diagnoses of Magic Johnson and Greg Louganis, the nation almost could not help but be AIDS aware. AIDS ribbons seemed to adorn every lapel.

Now, it seems that AIDS ribbons are only dusted off during various annual charity walks. HIV/AIDS no longer makes news in the United States because fewer people are dying. According to the CDC, AIDS-related deaths dropped 70 percent between 1995 and 2001 — from 51,670 to 15,603.

Advances in treatment have enabled people to live longer with the illness. In recent years, the HIV/AIDS has only generated headlines in stories referring to the epidemic and growing AIDS orphan population in Africa.

"HIV/AIDS in society as a whole seems to have dropped off the radar screen," said Futterman.

"You don't see condom commercials unless it's really late at night," she said. "People are reverting to their old practices and not being careful about their behavior. Even at the Grammys, I didn't see one artist wearing an AIDS ribbon; everyone is so preoccupied with the [looming] war [with Iraq]. Sexually active people ages 13 to 24, for a number of reasons, don't view it as a morbid disease that people die from and that, in part, comes from lack of attention to the topic. … It takes a tremendous amount to mobilize a community to HIV/AIDS."

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