The number of homosexual and bisexual men in the United States diagnosed with the AIDS virus has risen for a third year, raising concerns about a revival of the epidemic, a federal health agency said yesterday.
According to preliminary data from 25 states, new HIV cases among men who have sex with men rose 7.1 percent between 2001 and 2002, said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“These findings add to the growing concern that we are facing a potential resurgence of HIV among gay and bisexual men,” said Dr. Harold Jaffe, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention, at the 2003 National HIV Prevention Conference, which is being held in Atlanta this week.
The CDC also reported that in 2002, AIDS-related deaths fell by 5.9 percent to 16,371, but overall AIDS diagnoses rose 2.2 percent to 42,136.
“The AIDS epidemic in the United States is far from over,” said Dr. Jaffe. While treatment is crucial, he said, preventing infection in the first place is still the only true protection against the disease.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest homosexual-rights group, said the new HIV numbers were “a wake-up call” for a comprehensive, science-based plan to prevent AIDS.
Dr. Jaffe cautioned that the higher number of new HIV cases could reflect higher numbers of people getting tested for HIV, as the tests show a new diagnosis but not necessarily a new infection. But the CDC official also noted that HIV diagnoses among other vulnerable groups have been stable.
The HIV numbers could point to a new trend but could also be “a blip in the data” because of the new CDC surveillance system, said David C. Harvey, executive director of AlDS Alliance for Children, Youth and Families.
In any case, it’s a sign that “we need to renew our efforts on HIV prevention and we need the Bush administration to focus more on these issues,” said Mr. Harvey. Investments in HIV prevention in the United States have paid off with lower transmission rates, he said. “Condoms work, exclamation point.”
To Pete LaBarbera, an analyst with the Culture and Family Institute of Concerned Women for America, the rising HIV cases among homosexual men show the limits of multimillion-dollar campaigns about avoiding AIDS.
“The safer-sex message is not working. If gay men haven’t heard of HIV and health risks, nobody has,” he said. Despite untold millions spent on education, “the reckless behavior continues,” he said.
“Maybe it’s time for the CDC and federal government to research the particular health risks associated with gay sex,” said Mr. LaBarbera. “The federal government studies the health risks of smoking. Maybe there needs to be some public education on the risks [of homosexuality.]”
Other proposed CDC approaches include stepped-up HIV testing among at-risk populations and education campaigns aimed at teaching HIV-positive people how to not transmit the virus.
According to the CDC, about 70 percent of new HIV cases occur among men.
The highest-risk group is men who have sex with men, representing 42 percent of new HIV cases. Men and women infected through heterosexual relations are the second-highest risk group, accounting for 33 percent of new HIV cases. Intravenous drug users are third, comprising 25 percent of new cases.
Last year was the third year in a row in which homosexual and bisexual men saw an increase in new HIV cases. In 1999, there were 6,561 new cases from this group. In 2002, there were 7,723 new cases, a 17.7 percent increase.
The new CDC HIV tracking system may soon determine whether a new case is also a new infection. A new test, which is supposed to be in place by next year in 35 locales that account for 93 percent of annual HIV infections, will use a blood test that can determine whether a person became infected with HIV in the previous six months.
The new system will identify areas and populations where HIV is being transmitted, say CDC officials.
An estimated 850,000 to 950,000 Americans are infected with HIV.