The Long-term Outlook for AIDS

June 09, 1993

Researchers meeting in Berlin this week for the Ninth International Conference on AIDS come together in an atmosphere considerably less optimistic than previous gatherings. After nearly a decade of intensive research, there is still no cure on the horizon. Meanwhile, experts now fear an explosive spread of the epidemic in Asia and Latin America, and express concern that the stage is set for a similar scenario in the former communist countries of eastern and central Europe.

Compounding matters, recent studies have called into question the effectiveness of drug therapies aimed at prolonging the lives of people with AIDS. And heterosexual transmission of AIDS appears to be becoming much more prevalent, with teen-age girls and women the fastest growing category of new infections.

All these developments add up to a growing recognition among researchers that the AIDS epidemic will be with us for the foreseeable future. At present, an estimated 14 million people worldwide are infected with the virus that causes AIDS. That number is expected to increase nearly threefold by the year 2000.

These stark realities far overshadow the impressive scientific progress that has been made to date and underscore the inadequacy of current AIDS education and prevention programs.

One of the most discouraging developments has been evidence that drugs designed to prolong the lives of AIDS patients may be of only limited effectiveness. Earlier this year, a European survey found that early treatment with the drug AZT does not slow the onset of the disease. Another team reported that alpha interferon, a drug developed by a Kenyan researcher, had no therapeutic effect at all. Some researchers even suggest that many drugs actually harm patients by causing the virus to mutate into ever more virulent strains.

So far, heterosexual transmission has accounted for less than 10 percent of AIDS cases in the United States. Now researchers fear the number could rise dramatically because of the much larger size of the heterosexual population. Such statistics account for the bleak outlook everywhere apparent at this year's conference. Said one participant glumly: "AIDS is going to be with us for a long, long time. It's going to get worse before it gets better."

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