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Minorities, Homosexuals Continue to Bear Brunt of US HIV Epidemic

The U.S. government says HIV infection rates continue to be highest among the country's racial and ethnic minorities. There is also an increase among homosexual males. But the rates have remained relatively stable.

There are still fewer than one million HIV infections among a U.S. population of 295 million. U.S. public health authorities have reported a total of between 850,000-950,000 for several years in a row, with about 40 thousand new cases per year. But the overall figures mask the sharp disparity that exists between the majority white population and minority groups.

The chief of HIV prevention programs at the U.S. government's disease-tracking agency, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is Ronald Valdiserri. He says black Americans continue to be the hardest hit subgroup. They accounted for more than half of all new HIV cases between 2000 and 2003, although they make up only 13 percent of the population. In sharp contrast, non-Hispanic whites are 75 percent of the U.S. population, but accounted for only one-third of new HIV diagnoses. In between are Hispanics, who comprise 11 percent of the population and have a new case rate roughly comparable to their proportion in society.

"Overall nationally, the epidemic has been relatively stable, but I think what this report shows us is that there are pockets of persistent challenge, particularly in terms of racial and ethnic disparities," he said. "This is telling all of us involved in HIV prevention efforts that we need to focus our attention in these areas."

There are even sharp differences among U.S. blacks, with women infected at much higher rates than men. African American females account for about 70 percent of all new U.S. female HIV diagnoses since 2000, a rate 18 times higher than white women and nearly five times higher than Hispanic women.

The U.S. government figures also show that male homosexuals continue to make up another huge proportion of America's AIDS patients, the group in which the infection was first discovered in the early 1980s. Dr. Valdiserri says they accounted for 44 percent of new HIV cases between 2000 and 2003, an 11 percent increase over the four-year period ending in 2002.

"We remain very concerned when we look at the complete picture for various communities of men who have sex with men," he added. "Now, granted, the increase was not as large in this report as it was in last year's report, so that is somewhat encouraging, but this is not a trend that we want to ignore. It is something we need to look at very carefully."

The U.S. health official estimates that one-fourth of infected Americans do not know they have the disease. He says his agency is working to remove barriers to testing. It has distributed half a million rapid test kits to clinics and community organizations nationwide, including homeless shelters and drug treatment programs.