AIDS epidemic: deadly as ever

January 07, 1994

A little less than a decade ago, when scientists began unraveling the mystery of a deadly new disease that seemed to strike homosexual men with particular fury, gay activists were among the first to sound the alarm over what was to become a world-wide AIDS epidemic. They pushed for stepped-up medical research and were on the front lines of a public relations effort to promote "safer sex" through the use of condoms. As a result, the rate of new infections among gay men fell sharply in the late 1980s.

Now evidence is mounting that the early successes of the AIDS education and awareness movement may be in jeopardy. Recent studies suggest that the rate of new AIDS infections among gay men in San Francisco, an epicenter of the epidemic over the last decade, is again on the rise.

Since 1985, when education and awareness efforts brought the rate to a low of one new infection for every 100 men under the age of 25, the infection rate has quadrupled. Although Maryland keeps statistics only on the number of full-blown AIDS cases, experience suggests a similar rise in infection rates probably has occurred here.

That is why the federal government plans to launch a new public relations effort emphasizing the importance of using condoms as well as abstaining from sex. The difference between this effort, contrasted with earlier campaigns, is that the TV networks now appear to be amenable to carrying blunt Clinton administration messages on the sensitive topic of condom use.

Federal officials have long been concerned that young people, apparently convinced of their own immortality, are ignoring advice regarding safe sex practices. They believe the only way to reach the group is through television and radio.

A new, younger generation of gay men is apparently aware of the risks, yet psychologically less able to cope with them. In part their difficulty is that of youth in general, a sort of "it can't happen to me" bravado. In part it may also stem from a fatalistic sense that nothing one does will make a difference. And part of it is ignorance. People tend to forget painfully learned lessons if they are not constantly reminded of them. That is what the new federal initiative aims to do -- and judging from the statistics, it's not a moment too soon.

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