Decline in Aids Deaths Provides `Bright Spot' 13 Pct. Drop Biggest since Disease Was Recognized

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AIDS deaths declined 13 percent in the first half of last year, the first significant drop since the disease was recognized in 1981, the government said Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said about 22,000 people died of AIDS in the first six months of last year, down from the 24,900 deaths in the same period a year earlier.

"This is one of the first bright spots we have seen in this epidemic," said Christopher Portelli, executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Health Association in Washington. "But we hope it is seen as a call to arms rather than a chance to relax and breathe a sigh of relief." There was more good news Thursday: While the number of people diagnosed with AIDS continues to grow, the growth rate is slowing. In 1995, about 62,200 people were diagnosed, an increase of less than 2 percent over the 61,200 new cases in 1994. The growth rate from 1993 to 1994 had been 5 percent. "I think (last year's drop) speaks to the success of the dual approach of counseling, testing and treating people with HIV," said Patricia Fleming, the disease control center's chief of HIV-AIDS reporting and analysis. The center credits better treatment for AIDS patients, including new drugs, and better access to treatment through state and federal programs. What's still unclear is the impact of a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors. The AIDS death rate leveled off in 1995, before those medicines became widely available. However, not all doctors are sure that AIDS has turned downward. "In my view, this decline is unfortunately only a lull," said Dr. Irvin S.Y. Chen, director of the AIDS Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. "Not all patients are responding as effectively as the majority of patients. There are some patients for whom the drugs are not effective." And some advocates point out that AIDS patients, as they live longer, will need more help, not less. …

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