The news about AIDS is as ominous as ever.
The latest international conference, bringing together the world's top AIDS researchers, adjourned last week in Amsterdam on an unsettling note. Scientists puzzled over reports of at least two dozen people who exhibit the classic symptoms of AIDS, but have no detectable sign of either of the two known strains of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Has the virus mutated into a different strain unrecognized by current testing methods? Do these cases represent a new virus, or an animal virus that has crossed over to infect humans? Or are these cases simply the result of some other disease, such as blood cancer?
The broad sweep of these questions indicates the long road ahead for AIDS research. But finding answers is urgent. By the end of this decade, 40 million people will be infected with the AIDS virus -- and some predictions go as high as 110 million. HIV is already ravaging countries in the Third World, especially in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, a vaccine against the virus is years away.
If scientists are puzzled by recent developments, at least they are grappling with the issues. Politicians still seem paralyzed by the AIDS challenge. In most of the world, AIDS is a heterosexual disease, and even in this country it is rapidly losing its identification as a disease primarily afflicting gay men. Even so, education efforts that preach the need for safe sex and other precautions often get tangled up in political battles.
As AIDS spreads, it is becoming more of a women's disease. That is especially devastating for poor Third World families, where women are essential to health and economic well-being of the family unit. Dr. Michael Merson, who heads the World Health Organization's program on AIDS, told the conference that almost half of the 1 million adults infected with the virus this year have been women, and by the year 2000, a majority of new infections will be in women. That will bring a corresponding rise in the number of children born with the virus.
The conference proved to be a sobering reminder that although human beings have long since subdued their large natural predators, the tiny attackers can exact an even deadlier toll.