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U.S. AIDS Epidemic Worse Than Thought

40% Higher HIV Infection Rate; 56,300 Americans Infected Each Year

Drug Users -- Clue to AIDS Prevention Success?

The CDC's new figures aren't all gloom and doom.

A ray of light comes, of all places, from intravenous drug users. Since the mid-1990s, fewer and fewer Americans have been getting HIV from intravenous drug use. That's due not to a decrease in drug use, but to prevention success among those who continue to use illicit drugs.

"It is exciting to see the continued declines in new infections among intravenous drug users," Wolitski says.

What makes this so exciting is that drug users are a hard-to-reach population that obviously ignores mainstream health messages. Yet prevention efforts succeeded in dropping new HIV infections from a high of about 35,000 per year in the late 1980s to fewer than 6,000 per year in 2003-2006.

"It underscores the importance of a comprehensive approach that included a focus on individuals' needs, and includes needle and syringe exchanges that have been implemented in many communities around the country," Wolitski says. "Here it shows why we really need a comprehensive approach to HIV prevention. No single strategy is going to be a solution to the epidemic."

The Future of AIDS in America

Often lost in discussions of new HIV treatments is the fact that nobody has to get HIV. It's a 100% preventable infection. But prevention means dealing with sexual issues in a practical, forthright manner.

Last year, 14,000 Americans died of AIDS. That brings the U.S. AIDS death toll to more than 545,000 men and women.

"We all have to be doing more as individuals, as communities, and as a nation to stop this disease that continues to take a devastating toll on so many Americans," Wolitski says. "We need to ensure people who need intervention are being reached. We have to make sure HIV infection is not a rite of passage for new generations of gay and bisexual men. We need to be strongly fighting against this disproportionate burden that HIV has for African-American and other communities of color, and have to ensure that all young people have the knowledge, the skills, and the confidence they need to protect themselves from HIV throughout their lives."

The CDC report appears in the Aug. 6 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

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