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Fewer deaths make young people complacent about HIV

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The Dallas Morning News


DALLAS - They learned about condoms in gym class and took Magic Johnson's message from TV commercials and highway billboards.

The slogan "Practice safe sex" was as common as "Buckle up for safety" and "Say `No' to drugs."

Yet people younger than 25 - who make up just one-third of the U.S. population - account for about 50 percent of all new HIV infections in this country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Young adults are particularly vulnerable, because they're under the false impression that HIV is a manageable disease, said Adele Webb, executive director of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care.

"They see it as a chronic thing - they think they can take a pill so what's the big deal?" she said. "The only person they know with it is Magic Johnson, and as far as they know he's doing fine."

Most young patients are infected through sex, the CDC reports. Young white gay men continue to make up a significant number of those patients. But blacks are disproportionately affected, accounting for more than half of these new infections.

The median age when an HIV patient is first diagnosed with the disease has fallen steadily - from 35 in 1978 to 25 in 1990, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers haven't tracked the median age since then. But CDC epidemiologists say the trend persists, and they continue to see younger and younger patients.

For example, last year in Dallas County, Texas, nearly 30 percent of new infections occurred in people ages 13 to 29, according to the county's Health and Human Services Department. But local AIDS specialists say that figure is too low. Closer to 45 percent of their newly infected patients are under 25, they estimate. And most come from poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Dallas.

Raeline Nobles, executive director of AIDS Arms, said young adults are part of the reason Dallas is the No.1 city in Texas for new infections. "We've talked about AIDS for 20 years now," she said. "But we're still dying out here."

Most people whose infection is diagnosed early and who receive treatment live more than 16 years from the day of infection, according to the CDC. Yet one in four infected people doesn't realize he or she has HIV until it's too late.

Don Maison, president and chief executive officer of AIDS Services of Dallas, said education can do only so much. Young people are always going to experiment.

"It has to do with the mentality you have when you're 18 years old," he said. "You think you're bulletproof. You're healthy; you're vibrant. Those behaviors - you don't think they'll affect you."

And the difference with this generation is that they haven't watched their peers die in the same numbers they did 20 years ago, said Paul Scott, executive director of the Resource Center of Dallas.

"It used to be, you had 10 friends and you were lucky if you had one left at the end of the year," he said. "They're not seeing the death."


By the numbers:

-Young adults (under 25) make up an estimated 50 percent of new infections.

-Blacks account for more than half of these new infections.

-Across the nation, an estimated 40,000 cases of HIV/AIDS are diagnosed annually.

-Between 1995 and 2002, there has been a 70 percent decline in death, a result of treatment advances.

-As recently as 2002, there were 9,400 people living with HIV/AIDS in Dallas, and nearly 42,000 in Texas.

SOURCES: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Texas Department of Health


(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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