ATLANTA — Social worker Anthony McWilliams says he sees it every day – a new generation of gays and bisexuals numb from years of endless AIDS statistics and warnings about the epidemic.
“It becomes blah, blah, blah – noise to them,” said McWilliams, a counselor for AID Atlanta. “It’s just not getting through to them. They need to hear it a new way.”
Two decades after the discovery of AIDS, a new government survey suggests gay men and bisexuals too young to remember the disease’s explosive first years are contracting it at alarming rates.
The survey shows 4.4 percent of gay and bisexual men ages 23 to 29 are newly infected each year with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
For blacks in that group, the figures are staggering: One in seven becomes HIV-positive each year – roughly the same infection rate currently found among adults in South Africa.
“The numbers we’re publishing right now are more like the findings you see in the ’80s than the findings you see in the ’90s,” said Linda Valleroy, who led the survey for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Left unchecked, the infection rates could lead to a resurgence of AIDS after years of progress to control it.
“We have to stop and take a look at the devastation that potentially could occur among these young men,” said Dr. Helene Gayle, the CDC’s AIDS chief. “These are precious and important lives.”
AIDS prevention groups called the figures extremely disturbing, saying the country needs to devise new ways to reach young adults at risk.
“These are young people who didn’t see their friends dying, didn’t lose lovers and friends and people who were important to them,” said Marty Algaze, a spokesman for Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “It’s very scary. This is a new generation of people who should know better, but don’t.”
Health officials were particularly concerned about the infection rates among young black gays and bisexuals, saying the stigma in the black community of having HIV or AIDS may be keeping testing rates low.
The study included nearly 3,000 gay and bisexual men who were tested anonymously for HIV from 1998 to 2000 in Baltimore, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Seattle.
Government analysts acknowledged the data could be flawed: The men were recruited only at dance clubs, bars, shopping centers and gay-and-lesbian community centers, so the true rates for all young gay and bisexual men could be different.
There are no comparable historical data on infection rates for young black gays and bisexuals.
A CDC study earlier this year found HIV infections disturbingly common in large U.S. cities among gay men of all races in their 20s.
That study found that 3 percent of Asians, 7 percent of whites, 15 percent of Hispanics and 30 percent of blacks are infected with the virus.
And a San Francisco study found the rate of new HIV infections among gay and bisexual men in that city nearly tripled from 1997 to 1999.
The government’s effort to contain HIV/AIDS may be cursed by its own success, CDC analysts said.
New HIV infections have leveled off in America at about 40,000 a year and improved medicine allows AIDS patients to live longer, healthier lives.
“People don’t perceive that you get infected and you die in two months anymore,” said Phill Wilson, executive director of the African-American AIDS Policy and Training Institute at the University of Southern California.
“There’s all these posters around that say you can climb mountains and do whatever with HIV and AIDS.
“There’s not enough messages about the price you have to pay,” he said.
Since the discovery of AIDS – first reported in a June 5, 1981, government health bulletin as a strange form of pneumonia – there have been about 750,000 reported cases in America. Nearly 450,000 of those patients have died.
In Washington, Surgeon General David Satcher hailed the nation’s HIV and AIDS prevention efforts Thursday, but he called the anniversary a solemn milestone.
“Twenty years into the AIDS epidemic, as a nation and as individuals, we may need a stark reminder that the best way to stop AIDS is to prevent HIV infection in the first place,” he said.
On the Net:
Coalition AIDS anniversary site: http://www.20yearsofaids.org
Gay Men’s Health Crisis: http://www.gmhc.org
AID Atlanta: http://www.aidatlanta.org