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CDC Report Finds Spread of AIDS Epidemic Increasingly Tied to Drug Addiction, Prompts Examination of Current AIDS Prevention Policies


March 1995

An unpublished report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that drug addicts are becoming the population hardest hit by AIDS (Gina Kolata, "New Picture of Who Will Get AIDS is Crammed With Addicts," New York Times, Feb. 28, 1995, p. C3).

The study finds that three-quarters of new infections of HIV reported in 1994 were among addicts. Of those diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, half of the infections were tied to the sharing of needles, a quarter were found in gay men, and a quarter are people who got HIV through heterosexual contact. The growing numbers of drug addicts who are becoming infected is not limited to intravenous drug users, but is spreading to crack users and women who have sex with men who inject drugs.

Dr. Scott Holmberg, the author of the study, said that 70 to 80 percent of those that became infected through heterosexual contact are women who had sex with men who inject drugs. Holmberg said that these women often got HIV when they were on "crack binges" or involved in trading sex for drugs. He estimates that half of the women infected through heterosexual transmission are crack addicts.

AIDS activists and experts responded by calling for a re-evaluation of drug treatment and prevention policies and priorities. Dr. Stan Vermund, chairman of the department of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said that in order to fight AIDS, the problem of drug abuse must be addressed. "We have to have the political will to make investments in drug treatment and drug control," he said. "If we are hostile to drug treatment and job creation, then the epidemic will rage."

Dr. Don C. Des Jarlais, an AIDS researcher from Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, said that the changing demographics of who gets AIDS might cause public opinion to turn against funding for AIDS research. Nevertheless, such information is necessary. "You're never going to have a good public policy and stop an epidemic if you base your policy on misinformation or wrong information," he said. "You have to know where the disease is occurring and how to go after it." [See the Feb. 1995 issue of NewsBriefs for a guest column by Dr. Des Jarlais, "Harm Reduction -- A Framework for Incorporating Science Into Drug Policy."]

Dr. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, associate professor of clinical psychiatry and public health at Columbia University said that the new data might cause non-addicts to think that they cannot get HIV, especially those in rural areas. "There is no magic ring around the inner city," she said.