For the first time in the history of the AIDS epidemic, the number of babies born nationwide with the virus that causes AIDS has leveled off, government researchers say.
After increasing sharply in the 1980s, the percentage of childbearing women infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, has remained relatively constant since 1989, the researchers found.
The reason is unknown, but in a paper being published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Susan F. Davis and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta suggest several possibilities.
One is that HIV-positive women are becoming less fertile; another is that they are having more abortions; and a third is that the incidence of HIV infection among women of reproductive age is leveling off.
The new study estimated that 14,920 HIV-positive infants were born in the United States from 1978 to 1993. The numbers grew from 70 born in 1978 to a peak of 1,760 born in 1991 and have declined slightly since to 1,630 in 1993.
The researchers estimated that 20 percent to 25 percent of babies born to HIV-positive women would be infected.
As encouraging as the findings are, Dr. Davis was quick to caution that HIV infection remains a leading cause of death in children. She characterized the findings as a signal for doctors to follow guidelines issued by the Public Health Service for reducing transmission.
The guidelines recommend that doctors offer all pregnant women the opportunity to be tested for the virus that causes AIDS.
They followed a government study last year that found that the rate of mother-to-child HIV transmission can be reduced by as much as two-thirds if women take the drug AZT from early in pregnancy until delivery and if the newborns take it for six weeks.
But a three-year European AIDS study, released yesterday, confirms earlier findings that AIDS patients live longer using a combination of existing AIDS drugs rather than AZT alone.
The study found a 38 percent reduction in the death rate for a group of patients who began therapy using AZT in combination with either ddI or ddC, two other AIDS drugs.
The study's findings, released in Denmark , are the strongest to date showing the increased life expectancy of AIDS patients who combat the disease with multiple doses of more than one drug.