Preliminary findings in a new survey of HIV infection on 35 college campuses, including two in Maryland, show that prevalence of the AIDS virus has risen slightly with the potential for further spread.
Based on the first 16,000 of 28,000 blood specimens to be analyzed by February, the survey shows that the virus that leads to AIDS affects 2.3 in every 1,000 college students, believed to be about the same rate as in the general population. The survey was conducted during the first six months of 1990.
At this rate, up to 35,000 of the nation's college students could be infected with HIV or human immunodeficiency virus that leads to the fatal disease, Wallace Brewer, the survey coordinator, said yesterday.
More than 50 percent of the 35 participating colleges have infected students on campus and those testing positive are predominantly male, according to the survey conducted jointly by the American College Health Association and the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The University of Maryland Baltimore County and the University of Maryland at College Park have each contributed 1,000 student blood samples to the study which is continuing.
AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, cripples the immune system and leaves those stricken vulnerable to a host of killer infections and cancers. The disease is spread most often through sexual contact, needles or syringes shared by drug abusers, infected blood or blood products and from pregnant women, who are partners of IV drug users or IV drug users themselves, to their babies.
In May 1989, the first survey conducted by the same two agencies reported that based on a total of 16,861 student blood samples at 19 colleges, one in 500 or two in 1,000 college students were infected. Nine out of the 19 schools studied had HIV positive students and all but two were males.
At that time, it was estimated that 25,000 university students across the country could have the AIDS virus.
And, the principal investigators called for "more aggressive prevention methods" because university students are a group often characterized by independence, experimentation with sex and sometimes drugs and a feeling of invincibility.
Details of the first study are belatedly published in today's issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
"The preliminary findings of the new study clearly tell us that the problem is not getting any better, that it could continue to rise and that it needs to be addressed with increasing emphasis," Brewer said.
Debra Sivertson, director of student health services at UMBC, said she was "not surprised" by the increasing percentage of HIV infection.
"This study really drives home the point that there is HIV on college campuses and if we look at our campuses and the individuals we are dealing with, we're dealing with our future leaders and professionals," Sivertson said. "And, those people in those fields are going to be impacted by HIV disease."
Prevention programs "have to be stronger than ever and we need to be real careful about the message," she said.
Better communication skills are needed between all partners, she stressed, so they can make joint decisions "so they don't put themselves at risk."
"We have to have our clinicians out in the communities as well as in student health centers brought up to date on HIV to make sure they pick up these people early and get them tested because there are new drugs and new hope now," Sivertson said.
The University of Maryland at College Park and UMBC are among 11 colleges that have participated in both studies. This year, another 24 colleges were chosen randomly to make the study more representative of the nation's college population.
"We had some concerns that none of the colleges were randomly selected in the first study," Sivertson said. "We felt that the data was not as relevant as it will now be."
The new study also shows that if a student, who might have had a risk behavior in the past, comes into a university health center perfectly healthy he or she is just as likely to be HIV-infected as the person who is coming in to be treated for a sexually-transmitted disease, she said.
Asked about the basis for the projected 35,000 college students that could be affected by the AIDS virus, she said, "I think it's due to two things. We do have more colleges involved now, but it's also because HIV is on the rise. We are looking at demographics of HIV disease changing and to more heterosexual, more vaginal intercourse and other areas than the demographics before."