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Deaths from AIDS show first significant drop nationwide

February 27, 1997

ATLANTA (AP) _ The number of AIDS deaths has dropped significantly for the first time since the epidemic began in 1981 _ a decline officials credited to better treatment and programs.

AIDS deaths fell 13 percent in the first six months of 1996, to 22,000 people, down from 24,900 deaths in the same period a year earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

The CDC saw a slight drop in AIDS deaths in the second quarter of 1995, but researchers did not see it as significant.

``This is one of the first bright spots we have seen in this epidemic,″ said Christopher Portelli, executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Association in Washington. ``But we hope it is seen as a call to arms rather than a chance to relax and breathe a sigh of relief.″

There was more good news Thursday: While the number of people diagnosed with AIDS continues to grow, the growth rate is slowing. In 1995, about 62,200 people were diagnosed, an increase of less than 2 percent over the 61,200 new cases in 1994. The growth rate from 1993 to 1994 was 5 percent.

``We must not relax our efforts,″ President Clinton said. ``In the months and years ahead, we must continue to work together as a nation to further our progress against this deadly epidemic.″

The first signs of the drop in AIDS deaths came in January, when New York City reported a 30 percent drop in AIDS deaths in 1996.

``I think this speaks to the success of the dual approach of counseling, testing and treating people with HIV,″ said Patricia Fleming, the CDC’s chief of HIV/AIDS reporting and analysis.

The CDC credits better treatment for AIDS patients, including new drugs, and better access to treatment through state and federal programs.

What’s still unclear is the impact of a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors. The AIDS death rate leveled off in 1995, before those medicines became widely available.

Not all doctors are sure that AIDS is making an about-face, however.

``In my view, this decline is unfortunately only a lull,″ said Dr. Irvin S.Y. Chen, director of the AIDS Institute at UCLA. ``Not all patients are responding as effectively as the majority of patients. There are some patients for whom the drugs are not effective.″

And some advocates point out that AIDS patients, as they live longer, will need more help, not less.

``It’s still difficult for a person to walk into a doctor’s office and be treated for AIDS,″ Portelli said. ``We are concerned that people will misinterpret this news. We would hope to see more money and support for better access to medical services. New drugs are not all we need.″

``Access to health care is a life-and-death matter,″ said Christine Lubinski, deputy executive director of the AIDS Action Council in Washington. ``We are going to continue to urge an increased investment ... because we’re finally beginning to see a payoff.″

A growing number of people are living with AIDS each year, the CDC said. In June 1996, 223,000 Americans age 13 and older had the disease _ a 10 percent jump from mid-1995 and a 65 percent increase over 1993.

As of December 1996, 581,429 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS since 1981: 488,300 men, 85,500 women and 7,629 children.

And some new trends are worrying health officials. Blacks accounted for more cases of AIDS than whites for the first time in 1996 _ 41 percent compared to 38 percent. Hispanics accounted for 19 percent, and other races 2 percent.

Also, the proportion of women with AIDS is still increasing. In 1996, women made up 20 percent of new cases. AIDS deaths have not declined among women or heterosexuals.

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