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AIDS epidemic in U.S. ‘worse than previously known’

The AIDS epidemic in the U.S. is far worse than previously reported, the government said Saturday in releasing new findings.

About 56,300 people are now thought to be infected with HIV annually—a startling 40 percent jump from the government’s previous estimate of 40,000.

The new figures represent improved assessments, not evidence that infection rates are going up, officials said. But the news had AIDS advocacy groups in Chicago calling for additional funding to combat the outbreak among gay men and African-Americans, among whom cases of infection are increasing fastest, the study shows. Advocates also called for a national strategy to combat the epidemic.

The new numbers, compiled in 2006, were derived from a sophisticated blood test that determines when a patient was infected. Previous studies depended on a medical diagnosis that did not give the time frame of infection, making it difficult to compile yearly data.

The numbers The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the findings before the start of an international AIDS convention in Mexico City on Sunday and said they represent a more accurate picture of an epidemic that “is worse than previously known” and show how significant the threat of HIV/AIDS remains.

“We have not been able to see the leading edge of the epidemic,” Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, said Saturday in a conference call with reporters.

Figures for Chicago and Illinois—one of 22 states that participated in the study—will not be available until at least the end of the month, health officials said. But national trends have long been confirmed locally, they said. Chicago sees about 2,000 new HIV cases annually.

“The numbers are fairly stark,” Beau Gratzer, who directs HIV programs at the Howard Brown Health Center in Chicago, said of the national figures. “It’s troubling, but not surprising to those who have been working against this epidemic for years.”

Most of the newly reported cases mirror sociological and racial trends found in AIDS treatment in the last decade.

New cases are rising fastest among gay and bisexual men, according to the report, representing about 53 percent of the infections. African-Americans represent about 45 percent of the cases. About 60 percent of the victims are younger than 40, and 73 percent are men.

“What the numbers tell us is not new to us,” said Chris Brown, assistant commissioner at the Chicago Department of Public Health in charge of AIDS/HIV programs. “It tells us, however, where we need to continue to focus our priorities.”

AIDS advocacy groups in Chicago called for additional funding. Since 2002, federal prevention funding has remained about the same. The Chicago Health Department receives less than $6 million annually in federal AIDS funds.

“Keeping for inflation, that is an actual decrease over the years,” said John Peller, director of government relations for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Experts suggest $1 billion to $1.3 billion is needed for HIV/AIDS prevention nationally; current funding is about $600 million, they said.

“Over the last eight years, the domestic AIDS epidemic has been starved for resources,” said Phill Wilson, founder and chief executive officer of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles.

Wilson is outspoken against federal policies that he says promote abstinence-only education at the expense of other prevention methods and that ban clean-needle exchange programs, which some studies suggest reduce HIV transmission without expanding drug use.

Of about 50 evidence-based prevention programs approved by the CDC, only one deals with how to prevent HIV/AIDS in black gay men, advocates say.

“We have not been investing sufficient resources in fighting the AIDS epidemic in black America,” Wilson said. “We have very few programs designed for and by black gay men.”

In the face of the numbers, advocates also called for a national strategy on HIV/AIDS, much like the Bush administration-backed global initiative.

The CDC admitted Saturday that it has had the new data for almost a year but did not publish the results until they were subject to careful peer review. That, some Chicago advocates say, was unconscionable.

“Why don’t we have a national strategy to address an epidemic with 56,000 cases a year?” asked Cathy Christeller, executive director of the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project. “We would expect that if there was a sudden outbreak of salmonella, there would be a national response.”

At the Howard Brown Health Center, about 175 new HIVS cases are diagnosed annually, while some 1,800 patients receive treatment.

Men’s health promotion director Gratzer said the CDC findings could be a watershed moment for the development of new prevention research to slow the spread. Gratzer called for more non-traditional methods of AIDS prevention.

“There is no magic bullet when it comes to HIV,” he said. “We need better prevention research because different programs are needed for different communities.”

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