updated 7/26/2004 1:43:30 PM ET 2004-07-26T17:43:30

Fewer people believe the overall threat of AIDS is very serious these days, but a majority of Americans say they worry about the impact of the sexually transmitted disease on the nation’s children, an Associated Press poll found.

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That decline in fears about AIDS comes at a time the disease is showing signs of making a comeback in the United States.

About six in 10, 61 percent, said they feel AIDS is a “very serious” problem, according to the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs. When people were asked in 1987 how serious AIDS was as a national health problem, almost nine in 10 said it was “very serious.”

Revolutionary new drugs allow people to live longer with AIDS, and young gay men have no memories of the devastating early days of the sexually transmitted disease two decades ago. Health officials fear complacency could contribute to a comeback of the disease.

Their fears were confirmed a year ago when AIDS diagnoses increased for the first time in a decade.

More concern for children
Only two in 10 polled said they were concerned they would personally be infected with HIV, but more than half, 51 percent, said they were worried that a son or daughter could be infected.

“The way I look at it, kids are going to be kids,” said Mike Savicz, a 45-year-old father from Albuquerque, N.M., “like what we did when we were teenagers.”

Slideshow: AIDS pandemic More than six in 10 of those with children said they were concerned that a child might be affected. Even four in 10 of those with no children acknowledged fears about the possibility of a child being infected, if they had one.

Teaching safe sex should be a high priority to curb AIDS, Savicz said, noting that promoting abstinence is likely to get a cynical reaction from teenagers: “Yeah, yeah, like I’m going to do that.”

A majority in the poll, 55 percent, said teaching safe sex should be the focus of efforts to prevent AIDS, rather than promoting abstinence, backed by 40 percent.

The United States provides financial help to developing countries that support President Bush’s insistence that abstinence — rather than condoms — should be the main way to prevent the disease.

Americans say they support the $15 billion the United States has pledged to help fight AIDS in developing countries overseas. But when asked whether the money should go abroad or be used to fight the epidemic at home, they choose keeping the money here by a 2-1 margin.

Rise in cases likely to continue
The recent increase in diagnosed cases of AIDS is likely a sign of things to come, said Dr. Jim Curran, dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and a longtime veteran of AIDS prevention efforts.

“There are a number of factors that would suggest that AIDS and HIV infections will continue to be on the rise in the United States,” Curran said. “There are more people infected than ever, there’s a lower death rate, a rise in infection rates among young gay men.”

Four in 10 in the AP poll said they know someone who had AIDS, died of it or has been infected by HIV.

For 23-year-old Heather Sweeney of Philadelphia, AIDS remains a “very serious” problem. Losing a young friend to the disease reinforced that view.

“People are a lot more careless about protection,” she said. “A lot more people are having sex younger and they’re not as aware of it.”

When asked what health problem should be the federal government’s highest priority for spending on medical research, people were most likely to say cancer. AIDS, Alzheimer’s and heart disease tied for a distant second.

Efforts to raise private money for research have struggled as AIDS faded from the media spotlight. For example, in May, Pittsburgh held its last annual AIDS walk to raise money to fight the disease because of declining public interest and participation.

“You don’t hear as much about AIDS,” said Arthur McAteer, a federal government worker in West Melbourne, Fla. “People are more educated now, they take precautions.”

The AP-Ipsos poll of 1,002 adults was taken July 19-21 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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