The death toll from AIDS will soar past 25 million worldwide by 1997, earning it the grim title of history's most lethal epidemic, a Johns Hopkins medical researcher predicted yesterday.
"You probably want to know if there's a cure ahead, a vaccine, a light at the end of the tunnel," said Dr. John G. Bartlett, speaking in Baltimore to a gathering of newspaper editors. "Based on where we've been with this organism, I have to be pessimistic."
Dr. Bartlett, an AIDS expert and the head of infectious diseases at Hopkins Hospital, said scientists are likely to find ways to slow the ravages of AIDS, making it a "manageable" illness like diabetes.
But the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, may attack the body's natural defenses too efficiently and mutate too quickly to be defeated outright, he said.
In the 14th century, the plague called the Black Death claimed the lives of an estimated 25 million people in Europe. About a quarter of the continent's population may have died in what is widely considered the most deadly epidemic on record.
At least 20 million people died worldwide in the flu pandemic of 1918-1919.
The physician was one of five Hopkins doctors who spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, meeting this week at the Baltimore Convention Center. The doctors were asked to forecast the major medical stories of the next few years.
Dr. Bartlett said there probably will be new outbreaks of malaria and a vicious, recently discovered strain of tuberculosis. But not all his news was bad. Polio, he predicted, will someday be wiped off the face of the earth. Smallpox was the first, and so far, the only major disease eradicated, with the last case reported in 1976.
Dr. Solomon Snyder, Hopkins director of neuroscience, said new drugs to treat stroke and other illnesses may flow from research into the chemicals that brain cells use to talk to each other.
New machines, including advanced magnetic resonance imaging devices, will reveal details about how the brain learns and responds to injury, said Dr. Guy McKhann, director of the Krieger Mind-Brain Institute.