SEATTLE -- After a decade of holding steady, the number of Americans infected with HIV has begun to increase. But the news is better than it sounds.
Experts say the total is growing because fewer people are dying of AIDS. Doctors' spectacular success in treating the disease over the past six years is paying off in an unexpected way.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in their most recent calculations for 1999 and 2000, the number of people infected by HIV increased by about 50,000. This means between 850,000 and 950,000 Americans were infected with HIV, the most ever.
"The assumption is the increased survival of people with AIDS is driving this, and that's good news. It shows the benefits of therapy," said the CDC's Dr. Patricia Fleming, who presented the latest estimates Monday in Seattle at the Ninth Annual Retrovirus Conference.
The government estimates that 40,000 Americans catch HIV each year, a figure that has remained roughly stable for over a decade. However, until the turnaround in AIDS therapy, this figure was nearly offset each year by AIDS deaths, so the total number of Americans carrying the virus stayed level.
Now, AIDS deaths have plunged from around 40,000 annually to about 15,000. As a result, new infections are outstripping deaths.
Survival increased almost overnight when drug combinations that included medicines called protease inhibitors became standard in 1996. They transformed HIV from a death sentence to a chronic treatable illness.
Even when resistant virus emerges, patients who stay on the drugs usually keep their HIV levels low and remain free of obvious disease. Dr. Constance Benson of the University of Colorado said that in her AIDS practice, the annual death rate is 1 percent to 2 percent and is not changing.
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