WASHINGTON -- The global AIDS epidemic is worsening faster than experts earlier believed, according to new figures released yesterday by the World Health Organization.
WHO predicted in 1988 that there would be a cumulative total of 15 million to 20 million adults infected with human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, by the year 2000. But in the last four years, substantial increases in infections in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia have suggested that the 15 million to 20 million total may be reached by the mid- or late 1990s, the agency said in a report.
Recent information indicates, for example, that 3 million new infections have occurred in the past three to four years, most of them in these two regions, WHO said.
Since April 1991 -- when WHO released its last report tracking the global spread of acquired immune deficiency syndrome -- more than 1 million new infections have occurred worldwide, the health agency said.
"The world has seen what appeared at first to be an illness largelyconfined to homosexual men and drug injectors in industrialized countries become a pandemic affecting millions of men, women and children on all continents," the report said.
WHO projected that a cumulative total of between 30 million and 40 million adults and children would become infected with HIV by the turn of the century, meaning that infections will triple -- or even quadruple -- during the next eight years. (The term cumulative total refers to the number of infections recorded since 1981, when AIDS was identified.)
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the U.S. government's top AIDS researcher, called the international numbers "disturbingly high, but not surprising when you look at the numbers of people continuing to practice potentially risky behaviors" in many of those countries.
He blamed the escalating number of infections in part on a lack of international prevention programs.
"Some of these countries have no programs at all," Dr. Fauci said. "It's not even that a program has been tried and failed -- but that, in many of these countries, prevention programs have not even gotten off the ground."
Dr. Michael Merson, director of WHO's global AIDS program, said that new prevention programs could still alter the outcome.