Experts warn of much faster spread of AIDS U.N. study nearly doubles estimated rate of worldwide growth


WASHINGTON -- Medical experts working for the United Nations say they grossly underestimated the spread of the AIDS virus worldwide, and they now believe that new infections are occurring almost twice as rapidly as they thought a year ago. Instead of 8,200 new infections a day, they now believe there are 16,000.

The new data, which began circulating yesterday among U.S. officials here and will be issued today in Paris, suggest that 30.6 million people around the world are now living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The last estimate, for 1996, was that 22.6 million people had the virus.

Some of the increase results from actual spread of the virus, and some from new methods of collecting data and making estimates, which U.N. officials believe give a more accurate picture.

The United Nations estimates that 2.3 million people around the world will die of AIDS this year, an increase of more than 50 percent from an estimate that 1.5 million people died of the disease in 1996.

U.N. experts said the new data suggested that the AIDS epidemic could have ruinous economic effects in some regions of the world, because it strikes many people of working age. Two-thirds of the people infected with HIV live in sub-Saharan Africa, and the U.N. experts said the epidemic in that region had been badly underestimated even though it was known to be severe.

Asked about the new estimates, Sandra Thurman, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, said: "These numbers are so overwhelming that they numb the mind. We knew the numbers would increase. But I was surprised to learn how far off the mark we were in our estimates."

Gareth Jones, a spokesman for the U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS, said: "New infections are occurring at an alarming rate. In addition, it does appear that previous calculations grossly underestimated the rate of transmission of HIV, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where the bulk of infections are concentrated."

In a telephone interview yesterday from Geneva, Jones said: "The older estimates were based on data that came from a small number of countries. It was assumed that one could extrapolate similar rates of transmission for all countries in a particular region, assuming that regional factors would be pretty much the same. It turns out that that assumption was wrong."

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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