The number of newly diagnosed HIV and AIDS cases among gay and bisexual men grew 11 percent in the four-year period ending last year, raising fears of a new outbreak of the disease in a group experts say has become increasingly casual about taking protective measures.
The increase was offset somewhat by a decline in new cases among intravenous drug users, so the overall rate increased by 1 percent over the same period, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released yesterday on World AIDS Day.
The CDC estimates that about 40,000 new HIV infections occur each year in the United States, and that between 850,000 and 950,000 Americans are living with the disease, with about 280,000 not knowing they are infected, said Dr. Ronald O. Valdiserri, deputy director of the CDC's HIV prevention program. About 18,000 Americans die of AIDS each year.
The number of new infections has remained stable since the mid-1990s, when the burgeoning use of anti-HIV drugs lowered virus transmissions and death.
But the stable rate is seen as a setback because the government had set the goal of cutting the rate of new infections in half by 2005.
"We have a ways to go before we reach [that] mark," Valdiserri said in a telephone briefing with reporters.
"It's simply unacceptable that so many people continue to be infected by this virus," said Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the CDC.
Men who have sex with men bore the initial brunt of the AIDS epidemic and account for 44 percent of newly diagnosed cases, according to the new data. But complacency brought on by effective AIDS drugs and the time that has elapsed since the initial ravages of the epidemic have led to an increase in unsafe sex practices, officials said.
Data released by the CDC this week showed that syphilis rates - considered a good barometer of unsafe sex practices - are up nationwide for the third year in a row after a decade of decline.
"We need to pay close attention to this population and find new ways to intervene," Valdiserri said. "This is not a trend we want to ignore."
The new HIV data are based on information obtained from 32 states that keep detailed infection records and include the names of patients.
California and New York are not included among the reporting states, but the agency believes its estimates accurately reflect the situation nationwide.
The data continue to show sharp racial disparities. Blacks represent 51 percent of the new diagnoses, even though they account for only 13 percent of the nation's population.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.