WASHINGTONNew cases of AIDS in the United States have fallen for the first time in the 16 years of the epidemic, dropping by 6% in 1996 from 1995 levels. The main reason for the fall, most experts believe, is the use of combination regimens including protease inhibitors that prevent HIV infection from progressing to AIDS. It is also possible that fewer individuals are becoming infected with the AIDS virus.
There were 56,730 new cases of AIDS diagnosed last year versus 60,620 in 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. In addition, AIDS mortality fell by 23%, from an estimated 50,140 in 1995 to approximately 38,780 in 1996.
On the other hand, not all the news coming from the CDC was good. The decrease in AIDS cases was mostly accounted for by whites, among whom new cases dropped by 13%. Among Hispanics, there was a 5% decline, and no decline in AIDS cases was seen in the black population.
Further, the decline in AIDS incidence in 1996 is restricted to cases in homosexual men and those infected by intravenous drug use. Overall, the number of AIDS cases in heterosexuals rose between 1995 and 1996: 11% in men and 7% in women. Among black heterosexuals, the number of AIDS cases increased more dramaticallyby 19% among heterosexual black men and by 12% among heterosexual black women.
Geographically, the greatest declines in AIDS cases were in the West (12%) and the smallest in the South (1%), with the Midwest showing a 10% fall and the Northeast an 8% drop.
In other disturbing AIDS news, the CDC reported that the overall drop in the number of AIDS cases did not include women. From 1995 to 1996, there was an 8% fall in the number of AIDS cases in men, but a 2% rise in the number of cases in women.
For the four-year period 1991 to 1995, before the reported overall decline, the number of cases of AIDS increased much more dramatically among women (63%) than among men (12.8%).
Inadequate Education Effort
These figures may reflect inadequate education programs among women as well as the fact that infected women are more likely to be poor and have less access to health care, including the new combination drug regimens. In addition, the major route of infection among women has shifted from intravenous drug use to heterosexual contact.
The new figures on AIDS among heterosexuals have led some experts to suggest that the picture of AIDS in the United States may eventually come to resemble more closely that of developing countries, where the predominant form of transmission of the virus is by heterosexual contact.
However, for the moment, the number of AIDS cases in heterosexuals remains small: 3,790 cases in men and 6,320 in women in 1996, compared with the total of 56,730 cases.