July 9, 2000 -- Despite a decrease in AIDS infection since the 1980s, Americans continue to engage in risky sex behavior and drug habits, leading some experts to fear a return to the days when the disease was rampant.
“I’m scared by the trends we are starting to see,” said Dr.Helene Gayle, AIDS chief at the U.S. Centers for disease Controland Prevention.
Gayle presented the latest data at a briefing hosted bythe American Medical Association on the eve of the 13thInternational Conference on AIDS in Durban, South Africa.
Five million Americans have sexand drug habits that put them at a high risk of catching AIDS,according to a new U.S. survey. Public health officialsworry that complacency about the disease could affect at-risk populations especially young, gay men — that could bring AIDS back.
Studies Find Troublesome Behavior
Two large-scale surveys conducted by the CDC found that between 2 and 4 percent of the adult population still put themselves at high risk.
These people, which represent 4 to 5 million nationwide, include those having six or more sexual partners annually, having sex with someone known to be infected with HIV, engaging inprostitution for drugs or money, having male homosexual contact,using crack cocaine or injecting drugs.
Gayle said the study did not attempt to learn whether this levelof risky behavior is increasing or decreasing.
Evidence seems to point out both could be possible. While condom use hasincreased substantially since the 1980s, only about 40percent of unmarried people and 23 percent of drug users reportusing them.
About 40,000 Americans contract HIV each year, downfrom the 100,000 new infections annually during the mid ’80s. Theimprovement is attributed largely to safer sex habits and avoidingdirty needles.
Gay Men at Risk
Over the last decade, infection rates among gay men haveremained stable at between 1 percent and 4 percent.
But troubling signs are beginning to appear.
Last week, the San Francisco Department of Public Healthreported a sharp increase in new HIV infections between 1997 and1999. Also, gonorrhea and other sexually spread diseases have risenrecently in several cities among HIV-infected gay men.
Experts worry that complacency about getting AIDS, fueled inpart by the availability of effective HIV treatments, may be behinda return to risky sexual behavior.
In fact, one of the most impressive victories over HIV in industrializedcountries has been the use of AZT and other drugs to prevent thespread of the virus from infected mothers to their babies duringbirth.
In the United States, only a few hundred babies now get theinfection this way each year.
Many hope the same approach will slow the spread of HIV tobabies where this tragedy is common. Around the world, an estimated34 million children are living with HIV, most of them insub-Saharan Africa.
Free Drugs for Africa
Five major Western drugmakers have offered to slash the costof treatments for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, inimpoverished regions that can scarcely afford them.
On Friday, Pharmaceutical firm Boehringer Ingelheim offered its AIDSdrug nevirapine free of charge to developing countries to help stopmother-to-child spread of HIV. A German firm made a similar offer to supply it’s AIDS drug, Viramune.
However, a study scheduled to bereleased later at the meeting suggests this approach may not have abig impact, because infected women can still spread the virus totheir babies through breast feeding.
According to United Nations AIDS experts, there are about1.3 million children living with HIV/AIDS globally and themajority of them were born to HIV-infected mothers.
A study of 1,797 pregnancies found that a combination of thedrugs AZT and 3TC cut the risk of transmission to newborns by morethan half. However, as babies caught the virus through breast milk,the difference was nearly wiped out within 18 months.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.