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Drug Abusers Changing Behavior To Cut Risk Of Getting AIDS

April 17, 1985

ATLANTA (AP) _ The high risk of catching AIDS is leading drug abusers to change their behavior in efforts to cut the danger, according to interviews of drug dealers and needle sellers in New York City.

The findings undermine the stereotype of drug abusers as ″people who are concerned only about their next fix and not at all about their physical health,″ research Don DesJarlais said Tuesday at an international symposium on acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The study is significant because drug abusers are largely responsible for the spread of AIDS to heterosexuals and infants, said DesJarlais, a researcher with the New York State Division of Substance Abuse in New York City.

″We’re picking up substantial indications of risk reduction behavior,″ he said. ″At this point, it’s not possible to say whether that will change the course of the epidemic in New York City.″

DesJarlais tested blood samples collected by New York drug treatment centers between 1978 and 1980, and found that half of the drug abusers had been exposed to the AIDS virus by 1980, a year before the first cases of AIDS were reported by the Centers for Disease Control.

DesJarlais also found that drug abusers in New York were increasingly demanding ″new″ needles from dealers, meaning needles that had never been used by another drug abuser.

″We also found people hawking needles on the street using AIDS in the sales pitch,″ DesJarlais said. ″One said, ’Get the good needles, don’t get the bad AIDS.‴

AIDS is marked by a failure of the body’s immune system to ward off infection. It is caused by a virus that attacks certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes that play a central role in the immune system.

According to the federal CDC in Atlanta, drug abusers make up 17 percent of the more than 9,000 AIDS victims in the United States. They are the second most important risk group after homosexuals.

Another 7 percent of Americans with AIDS are both drug abusers and homosexuals, meaning that 24 percent of AIDS victims - or nearly one in four - are abusers of intravenous drugs, said Stanley Weiss of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

DesJarlais said that 53 of the 73 reported AIDS victims who got the illness from a heterosexual partner got it from a drug abuser. Fifty-five of the 108 infants and children with AIDS have a parent who abuses drugs, he said.

Another study by Henry Cohen of New York University Medical Center found that the risk of AIDS among drug abusers climbed the more frequently they injected themselves and the more often they visited ″shooting galleries,″ areas where drug users gather to inject themselves.

That study also showed that New York drug abusers were exposed to AIDS early, with most of them having shown evidence of exposure by 1982.

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