By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least 56,000 people become infected with the AIDS virus every year in the United States -- 40 percent more than previous estimates, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC stressed that actual infection rates have not risen but said better methods of measuring new diagnosed infections and then extrapolating this to the general population led to the fresh 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
"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."
Globally, 33 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and 2 million die of it each year.
The CDC estimates roughly 1 million Americans are infected with the virus. Dr. Kevin Fenton, who heads 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
More than 28,000 of the new infections are among men who have sex with men, the new estimates show. Close to 17,000 are among heterosexuals -- and 15,000 of these are women.
"These data are confirming what we had known before," Fenton said. "It also mirrors what we see about sexually transmitted diseases and changes in risk behavior among men who have sex with men."
Many recent studies have shown gay and bisexual men are having risky, unprotected sex more often than before, perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that the disease can be treated.
But AIDS remains incurable and is fatal if not treated. There is no vaccine and the drugs stop working if people do not take them precisely as directed.
The numbers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, also confirm that black Americans are seven times more likely to be infected than whites.
"The reality is that it is a wake-up call for all of us," Fenton said. "There are things that you and I can do to stop the disease -- encourage others to use condoms consistently and correctly, abstain from sex."
AIDS spreads rampantly in prisons, he added.
Communities need to provide better education and testing services, Fenton said.
Fears of being stigmatized have stopped people from being tested -- 25 percent of those infected do not know it and can pass along the virus.
But there was some comfort in the numbers.
"It is important to note that the new estimate does not represent an actual increase in the annual number of new HIV infections," CDC said.
"In fact, CDC's analysis suggests that the epidemic has been roughly stable since the late 1990s, though the number of new HIV infections remains unacceptably high," it said.
"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."
Cocktails of HIV drugs can keep patients alive and healthy but not everyone gets them, Fenton said.
Too many Americans are diagnosed late, after the virus has already damaged the immune system beyond repair, he said.