WASHINGTON -- For the first time since the AIDS epidemic began in 1981, deaths from the disease have dropped "substantially" across the country, federal health officials said yesterday.
The overall decline was 13 percent -- to 22,000 in the first six months of 1996 from 24,900 in the same period of 1995 -- in all regions of the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its weekly report.
The range was from a high of 16 percent in the West to 15 percent in the Northeast, 11 percent in the Midwest and 8 percent in the South, the federal agency said.
The national decline in AIDS deaths confirms the trend that New York City health officials reported last month, when they announced the first documented drop in AIDS deaths anywhere in the country.
Officials at the CDC in Atlanta said the drop in deaths was probably due in large part to the success of drug therapies introduced over recent years to fight HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome, and the many potentially fatal complications of AIDS known as opportunistic infections.
Combinations of the drug therapies showed improved benefits before the advent of a widely publicized class of drugs known as protease inhibitors.
Other factors contributing to the decline in AIDS deaths may be better access to care and increased financing for AIDS treatment.
In a statement released yesterday by the White House, President Clinton said he was encouraged by the news, but added, "It is also clear that the AIDS epidemic is not over."
Dr. John W. Ward, an AIDS expert at the CDC, said in an interview: "The decline in deaths leaves more people living with AIDS and HIV infection. We do not want to be a wet blanket here, but we still need programs that assure good access to treatment and care for infected people."
When the New York City figures were reported last month, federal health officials said it was unclear whether the decline was occurring elsewhere in the nation, since full statistics had not yet been compiled for 1996.
New York City reported a 30 percent drop for all of 1996. The trend continues into 1997, Dr. Mary Ann Chiasson, a New York City health official, said in an interview.
The national figures were limited to the first six months of 1996 because most cities and states lag far behind New York City in collecting and correlating the relevant health data.
The number of people living with AIDS or any other disease reflects the rate at which new infections occur and how long people live.
So in areas where the incidence of HIV infection and AIDS is rising, death rates from the disease may not change as significantly, even if there is an improvement in survival for those people with AIDS.
Nationally, the number of AIDS deaths declined for all racial and ethnic groups (non-Hispanic whites 21 percent; non-Hispanic blacks 2 percent; Hispanic patients 10 percent; Asians and Pacific Islanders 6 percent; American Indians and Alaskan Natives 32 percent; and all men 15 percent).
Women now account for a record high of 20 percent of all AIDS cases nationally.
The CDC's report said the incidence of people with AIDS who acquired the disease heterosexually was increasing -- "primarily reflecting transmission from the large population of injecting drug users with HIV or AIDS to their heterosexual partners."
Pub Date: 2/28/97