Scientists someday may find a cure for aids, but until then the only certain way to avoid the deadly disease is to avoid the virus that causes it.
And a glance at the statistics shows just where most AIDS victims contract the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the so-called AIDS virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 53 percent of AIDS cases involved men who have sex with men; 25 percent were from injecting drug use; and 7 percent involved heterosexual contact. Only 3 percent of AIDS sufferers contracted the virus from tainted blood and blood products, and screening procedures introduced in the 1980s are likely to reduce that percentage even further.
Protecting yourself against AIDS, it would seem, is pretty much a simple matter of engaging in “safer sex” and avoiding dirty needles. but what's simple isn't always easy. When it comes to sex, there are only two sure ways to prevent sexual transmission of HIV. One method is abstention. The other is by limiting sexual relations to a monogamous relationship with a partner who also is monogamous and free of the virus.
But neither solution is acceptable to many Americans. For them, the next best mode of protection from HIV is consistent use of latex condoms, which usually provide an effective barrier to the virus. Education campaigns focusing on the need to limit the number of sex partners and always use condoms have been aimed most heavily at the gay community, where AIDS first emerged in the United States in 1981. As the death toll from AIDS rose throughout the decade, the message took hold among homosexual men.
By the early 1990s, the results of safe-sex education programs had begun to pay off. Eleven years into the epidemic, the number of new AIDS cases in San Francisco, with one of the biggest gay populations in the country, peaked in 1992. In 1993, the number of new cases fell by 50 percent and was expected to continue to fall in coming years.
More limited success has been achieved from sporadic efforts to stem the use of contaminated needles among users of heroin and other injection drugs. Drug abuse experts say it is particularly hard to change the behavior of drug users, who tend to live at the margins of society. Fear of arrest, poverty and the numbing effects of drug use itself make it hard to help drug users change their behavior.
The most effective way to block HIV transmission among drug users, studies have shown, is to offer them clean needles. But clean-needle campaigns, such as local efforts in New York City supported by the American Foundation for AIDS Research and other groups, have run into heavy opposition from critics. They say giving away needles both weakens drug laws and helps sustain addiction by making it easier to use illegal substances safely.
Now, HIV is gradually making its way beyond homosexual men and injection users and into the heterosexual population. In 1994, AIDS became the leading killer of all Americans between 25 and 44 years of age. Although HIV is thought to be spread less readily through heterosexual intercourse, the disease is striking a growing number of women, who accounted for 18 percent of AIDS cases last year, up from 16 percent in 1993.
As the disease spreads throughout American society, it is striking hardest among minority groups, the CDC reports. African-Americans accounted for 39 percent of new AIDS cases last year, up from 36 percent the year before; 18.7 percent were Hispanics, up from 17.7 percent in 1993.
Even as AIDS begins its long-anticipated assault on the rest of American society, there are disturbing signs that the education campaign that proved so successful in the gay community may be losing its grip. New studies have uncovered an alarming increase in new AIDS cases among young homosexual and bisexual men, especially African- Americans.
AIDS activists look with alarm at the apparent weakening of prevention campaigns, especially in view of lawmakers' interest in cutting government spending for AIDS research and education. “We have to keep pushing the education campaign,” says Peter Staley of the treatment action group (TAG) In New York City. “But we now have a Republican Congress that's intent on cutting the budget of the NIH. If you take a moralistic approach toward homosexuality, then you're ignoring a population that is most in need of education.” “” “'” “” “”