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AIDS Experts Downplay Health Threat From Mysterious AIDS-Like Illness

August 15, 1992

ATLANTA (AP) _ The nation’s AIDS experts say they don’t know what causes a mysterious AIDS-like illness in patients who don’t have the AIDS virus. But they say it isn’t a major public health threat.

About 300 researchers met Friday at the Centers for Disease Control and emerged pledging to share information through a national database and meet next month in Geneva at the World Health Organization.

The syndrome was first publicized just before the international AIDS conference in Amsterdam, Netherlands, last month. At least 41 cases have now been reported.

Some AIDS experts said blood donors should be screened for the illness. Blood is one way that the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, is transmitted.

″We must remember the lessons of AIDS,″ said Dr. Donald Armstrong of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who called for HIV screening in 1983, two years before hospitals and blood banks began routinely doing it.

″The most important thing is the safety of our blood supply,″ Armstrong said. ″I don’t want to be behind once again.″

But Dr. James Curran, deputy director of the CDC’s AIDS division, and other experts said researchers lack evidence that the new illness is spread through blood.

″We don’t have a disease yet that establishes a risk to the blood supply,″ said Dr. Gerald Quinnan Jr. of the Food and Drug Administration.

Curran and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of AIDS research for the National Institutes of Health, criticized the media for creating a public scare by describing the illness as AIDS-like and reporting that health officials are baffled by it.

The CDC began investigating the illness in 1989, but did not report its initial findings until last month because the illness was not believed to be widespread or a threat, Curran said. The CDC has confirmed 30 cases in the United States, and there are at least 11 others worldwide.

All 41 patients have a low number of the body’s master immune cell, white blood cells called CD4s - a characteristic of AIDS - but do not have HIV.

Some also have diseases commonly associated with AIDS, such as pneumonia and fungal infections.

More than half of the 30 American patients reported none of the known risk factors for AIDS, and the patients are spread among 15 states, not clustered in major cities like people with AIDS, CDC officials said.

In the early 1980s, AIDS victims generally died within a few months of diagnosis. Only one of the 30 U.S. patients with this new disorder has died, and some remain in generally good health several years after diagnosis.

″It makes me think we’re dealing with a very different situation here,″ said Dr. Martin Hirsch of Harvard Medical School.

Some researchers speculated that a retrovirus could be attacking CD4 cells much like HIV does. A retrovirus implants itself in certain cells and causes disease much later.

However, Dr. John Brundage of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research said the illness is probably not new.

″We have to keep in mind that HIV testing wasn’t routinely done by blood banks until 1985,″ he said. ″CD4 counts weren’t routinely done until much later. We’re just seeing the results of new clinical testing methods.″

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