Latin AIDS epidemic due to soar, scientists say

January 25, 1993|By James Brooke | James Brooke,New York Times News Service

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Flourishing amid sexual promiscuity, hypocrisy and haphazard prevention, Latin America's AIDS epidemic is on its way to surpassing that of the United States, scientists say.

Much of the growth comes from rising infection rates among Latin American women, a fact that doctors attribute to a propensity for homosexual and heterosexual affairs by men and a traditional reluctance to discuss these with their wives.

While much of the world's concern about acquired immune deficiency syndrome has focused on Africa, Asia, and the United States, the rising number of infections in Latin America is prompting growing alarm about this region as well. Six years ago, fewer than 8,000 AIDS cases had been recorded in the region. Today, the number is approaching 60,000, and estimates of cases are even higher.

"We are going to see something of biblical proportions," said Mauro Schecter, director of an AIDS program at a university hospital here. In Brazil, a growing legion of women infected with the virus that causes AIDS has pushed the number of infected people to roughly 1 million, according to some AIDS researchers, in a population of 150 million. The United States, with 255 million people, has about the same number of infected people.

Mexico, the third most populous nation in the Americas with 85 million people, has an estimated 225,000 people infected with the virus that causes AIDS and perhaps as many as 500,000, according to government officials and private researchers.

In Colombia, an estimated 200,000 people carry the virus out of a total population of 33 million, the Health Ministry announced last month. So far, more than 5,000 people have developed the disease. But private groups warn that by the end of this decade 1 million Colombians could be infected.

Argentina, which has a slightly smaller population than Colombia, has about half as many infected people, an estimated 100,000. Officially, 2,754 Argentines have developed the disease, but the real number may be twice as high, said Dr. Marcelo del Castillo of the Hospital de Clinicas in Buenos Aires.

Estimates of infection rates and numbers of recorded AIDS cases in Argentina and throughout the region often vary because most Latin American countries have not conducted detailed surveys. AIDS workers in most countries tend to give higher estimates of infection rates and cases than health ministry officials.

"As in the rest of Latin America, 30 to 50 percent of the patients who have developed the disease are not reported," Dr. del Castillo said of Argentina.

Mirroring the region's precarious health system, Brazil has only seven clinics where people can be tested at no charge to see if they are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS. With many of Brazil's infections recent, doctors say the true size of Brazil's epidemic will loom graphically clear later this decade when patients start flooding hospitals. In Sao Paulo state, the number of people dying of AIDS quadrupled in four years, rising from 1,067 in 1987 to 4,134 in 1991.

Outside of Africa, Brazil ranks second in AIDS cases -- with 33,938 -- after the United States, which has recorded more than 242,000 cases.

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