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Study Estimates 1 in 500 Young Women Infected with AIDS Virus

March 2, 1988

BOSTON (AP) _ A study of Massachusetts women who gave birth found that one in 500 was infected with the AIDS virus, and researchers projecting their findings nationwide say several thousand AIDS-infected babies could be born in the United States each year.

Most surveys of AIDS infection have concentrated on male homosexuals, drug addicts and others at high risk of catching the disease. Estimating the prevalence of the virus in the general population has been difficult.

″This paper gives a more accurate way to judge the scope of the epidemic in women,″ said Dr. Rodney Hoff. ″Nothing else comes close to this in being able to measure the prevalence in the United States.″

Hoff directed the study at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health using tiny samples of blood routinely drawn from babies to check for phenylketonuria, or PKU, and other diseases.

The study found that one of every 476 women giving birth, or 2.1 for each 1,000, were infected with the AIDS virus. However, this varied greatly, depending on where they lived.

At three inner-city Boston hospitals, eight per 1,000 were infected. In suburban and rural hospitals, just under one per 1,000 carried the virus.

Dr. George F. Grady, the state epidemiologist, said the state’s infection rate probably mirrors the nation’s, since the rate of AIDS cases in Massachusetts is virtually the same as throughout United States.

″By coincidence, Massachusetts happens to be the average, composite state for the country,″ Grady said. ″What we are seeing here is one-50th of what’s going on in the United States, because we have about one-50th of the population.″

However, Dr. Timothy Dondero, chief of AIDS surveillance at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, cautioned that this is not a safe assumption. ″It’s not scientifically wise to try to make a national projection from one or two points,″ he said.

Dondero noted that a similar study conducted in New York, which has more AIDS cases than any other state, found a significantly higher level of infection.

The latest research was published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine. It was based on anonymous AIDS antibody testing on 30,708 babies born in Massachusetts during the first six months of last year.

The researchers assumed that all the mothers of babies with these antibodies carried the virus. However, the babies may have received the antibodies from their mothers without actually becoming infected.

Dondero said that about 40 percent of babies of AIDS-infected women are believed to get the infection themselves.

Projecting the Massachusetts figures nationally, the doctors calculated that if as few as 20 percent of them get the virus, then 1,620 AIDS-infected infants are born in the United States annually. If the figure is as high as 60 percent, then 4,860 infected children are born in a year.

The CDC says that about 600 cases of AIDS have been reported in children who were infected by their mothers at birth. It estimates that there may by 3,000 of these young AIDS victims by 1991.

Massachusetts has had about 2 percent of the AIDS cases in the United States. This puts it midway between the top five AIDS states - New York, California, Florida, Texas and New Jersey - which have nearly 70 percent of the nation’s AIDS cases, and the bottom 36 states and territories, which together have less than 10 percent.

The state’s AIDS incidence, its number of cases per 1,000 residents, is also virtually identical to the national average, Grady notes. Massachusetts has had an incidence of 0.25 cases per 1,000 in men and 0.02 per 1,000 in women. The national figures are 0.28 per 1,000 in men and 0.02 per 1,000 in women.

The Massachusetts experts believe that most of the infected women in the survey caught the virus through needle drug abuse or sex with addicts.

A similar one-month survey last December found that one in 61 babies in New York City carried AIDS antibodies. In the rest of New York state, one in 749 had the antibodies.

Dondero said that by May, 30 states will be screening newborn blood for AIDS antibodies.

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