DESPITE a recent report suggesting that AIDS may have only a limited impact on most U.S. communities, the worldwide death toll will be staggering. Recently, AIDS expert Dr. John G. Bartlett of Johns Hopkins University told newspaper editors gathered in Baltimore that AIDS will claim the lives of over 25 million people by 1997 -- making AIDS the deadliest epidemic in human history.
The countries hardest hit by the epidemic will be the developing nations of Asia and Africa. The virus is also spreading, though less rapidly, in Latin America and the Caribbean. According to a study by the Global AIDS Policy Coalition, up to 110 million people will be infected with the AIDS virus by the year 2000. The study estimated that, by 1992, some 12.9 million people had been infected with the virus worldwide, of whom 2.5 million had died, including more than 100,000 Americans.
If these predictions prove accurate, the next five years will witness an explosive growth in AIDS deaths that will dwarf any previous epidemic in history. The bubonic plague which swept Europe in the 14th century and carried off a quarter of the continent's population claimed 25 million lives. The great influenza epidemic of 1918-19 killed some 20 million worldwide. Unless a cure or an effective treatment is found, the toll from AIDS threatens to rise above 100 million people sometime in the next century.
So far the AIDS virus has stymied scientists' search for a cure or a vaccine. A study published recently in the British medical journal the Lancet suggested that AZT, the only federally approved drug for treating AIDS patients, had no effect in slowing the development of the disease in people infected with the HIV virus.
Some researchers, like Dr. Bartlett, remain optimistic that ways will be found to slow the ravages of AIDS, making it a "manageable" illness like diabetes. But the HIV virus itself may prove too resistant ever to be defeated outright -- in which case AIDS is likely to persist well into the next millennium.