WASHINGTON (Reuters) - New estimates show that least 56,000 people become infected with the AIDS virus every year in the United States -- 40 percent more than previous calculations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Saturday.
The CDC stressed that actual infection rates have not risen but said better methods of measuring newly diagnosed infections and extrapolating these to the general population led to the higher estimates.
"CDC's first estimates from this system reveal that the HIV epidemic is -- and has been -- worse than previously known. Results indicate that approximately 56,300 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006," the CDC said in a statement.
"This figure is roughly 40 percent higher than CDC's former estimate of 40,000 infections per year, which was based on limited data and less precise methods."
The CDC said the epidemic has been stable since the late 1990s, "though the number of new HIV infections remains unacceptably high."
"The analysis shows that new infections peaked in the mid-1980s at approximately 130,000 infections per year and reached a low of about 50,000 in the early 1990s," it said.
Dr. Kevin Fenton, who heads the CDC's AIDS branch, said 15,000 to 18,000 Americans die every year of AIDS."The data really confirm that there is a severe impact of this epidemic among gay and bisexual men in the United States ... as well as black men and women," Fenton said in a telephone interview.
The numbers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirm that black Americans are seven times more likely to be infected than whites.
DOING TOO LITTLE
AIDS activist groups said the numbers showed the United States is doing too little to control the epidemic.
"We need to develop programs that specifically target those most at risk, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and men who have sex with men," Kevin Robert Frost, chief executive officer of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, said in a statement.
"The reality is that it is a wake-up call for all of us," Fenton agreed. "There are things that you and I can do to stop the disease -- encourage others to use condoms consistently and correctly, abstain from sex."
Fears of being stigmatized have discouraged people from being tested -- 25 percent of those infected do not know it and can pass along the virus.
AIDS groups have been clamoring for the CDC to release its numbers, but Fenton said the CDC's numbers have been undergoing peer review -- a months-long process during which both the statistical methods and the numbers themselves have been scrutinized by experts recruited by the journal's editors.
"This improved estimate means little if it does not serve as the spark to inflame our collective anger about the deadly neglect of an acute emergency," Mark McLaurin of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project said in a statement."This week, President Bush signed a new global AIDS bill, but persistent underfunding and restrictions here at home tie our hands in combating the epidemic in our own backyard."
The president's Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief or PEPFAR program signed into law this week is a $48 billion, five-year package to help treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria around the world.
Globally, 33 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and 2 million die of it each year.