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New hope: AIDS deaths drop for first time

graphic February 27, 1997
Web posted at: 7:50 p.m. EST

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ATLANTA (CNN) -- For the first time since the epidemic began 15 years ago, the number of deaths in the United States among people with AIDS has dropped, the government announced Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said deaths among people with AIDS declined 13 percent during the first six months of 1996 over that same period the year before.

The CDC also reported that while the number of AIDS cases continues to grow, the growth rate is slowing. There were only 2 percent more cases diagnosed in 1995 than the year before.


AIDS remains the leading cause of death in the United States for those 25 to 44 years old. However, the drop in the death rate is seen as an excellent sign by some in the health care industry.

"I think it's great news," said Dr. Helene Gayle of the CDC. She attributed the drop to a number of factors, including improved treatments and public education.

Others say there's more to the numbers than medical progress. Christine Hurley, who runs an AIDS service center in Seattle, thinks better attitudes about AIDS are also making a difference.

'The power of hope is profound...'

"The power of hope is profound with people with AIDS," she said. "And every other situation that you can give people, where things look grim, a little glimmer can change people's expectations."

But the AIDS trend is better news for some people than others. While 21 percent fewer white people with AIDS died over the last year, there was only a 10 percent improvement among Hispanics, and just 2 percent fewer deaths among African-Americans.


And although the death rate for AIDS patients dropped 15 percent among men, the death rate for women actually rose by 3 percent.

As AIDS cases level off, minorities are now in the majority of patients for the first time. The CDC says 41 percent of the cases are now among African-Americans, compared to 38 percent among whites.

"It emphasizes the importance of a sustained effort, particularly in the area of prevention, so that we can really continue to get the right information, the right interventions out to people who are becoming susceptible," said Gayle of the CDC.

Prevention focuses on high-risk groups


Prevention efforts in the form of public-service announcements are focusing on high-risk groups, such as gay men.

"I'm 49, I'm gay and, fortunately, I'm HIV-negative," the man in one such spot tells viewers. "But over the last 12 years I've lost nearly all my most beloved friends to AIDS."

The CDC attributes the decline in AIDS-related deaths to such announcements, and to improved treatments. But scientists say it is still too soon to determine the impact that the newest class of drugs, known as protease inhibitors, will have on these trends.

Some experts speculate that such therapies will further lengthen the lives of people with HIV, and predict that death rates will continue to decline. Yet people must continue to exercise caution, health leaders say. The drugs have great potential for slowing the effects of AIDS, but they are not a cure.


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