The number of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, climbed for the third consecutive year in the United States in 2002, fueling fears that the disease might be poised for a major comeback in this high-risk group.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported the finding on Monday at the 2003 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, also revealed that AIDS diagnoses overall had risen 2.2 percent to 42,136 last year.
“The AIDS epidemic in the United States is far from over,” said Dr. Harold Jaffe, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention.
An estimated 850,000 to 950,000 Americans have the AIDS virus. AIDS killed 16,371 people across the nation last year, about 6 percent fewer than in 2001, according to the CDC.
Although U.S. health officials have been preaching HIV prevention to all Americans, they have become particularly concerned in recent years by an apparent resurgence of infections among gay and bisexual males.
HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with men surged 7.1 percent last year, according to data collected by the CDC from 25 states that have long-standing HIV reporting. New diagnoses in this high-risk group have increased 17.7 percent since 1999, while remaining stable in other vulnerable communities.
Jaffe cautioned, however, that the jump in HIV diagnoses could have been caused by increases in the number of gay and bisexual males being tested for the virus and was not proof that this group was being infected at a faster rate.
Standard HIV tests cannot tell when a person was infected with the virus, leaving open the possibility that HIV was contracted many years before being detected.
That could change in the coming months as the CDC implements a new HIV tracking system, which is based on a blood test that it says can determine whether a person had been infected with HIV in the previous six months.
CDC officials said the new surveillance strategy, was prompted by a need for more precise data on HIV infections and trends. About 40,000 new HIV infections are reported in the nation each year.
Since the AIDS virus first surfaced in 1981, estimates of new HIV cases have been based on the predictable length of time — usually 10 years — that elapsed between an initial infection and the onset of AIDS symptoms.
But the development of antiretroviral drugs has slowed the progression of AIDS and made it more difficult to predict when a person contracted HIV.
“It will provide us timely information on HIV transmission that is occurring now,” said Dr. Robert Janssen, who directs HIV prevention programs at the Atlanta-based agency.
“What it will do is allow us to target our prevention programs to those areas and populations among whom HIV is being currently transmitted,” Janssen added.
The CDC plans to have the system in place in 35 areas that account for 93 percent of annual HIV infections by 2004. The agency has allocated $13 million in supplemental funding to state health departments for the program in fiscal 2004.