WASHINGTON — Bioterror diseases like anthrax and smallpox may finally give AIDS a run for its federal tax money.
Research spending on AIDS mushroomed after the Clinton administration granted the sexually transmitted virus most favored disease status, even though AIDS deaths have been falling since 1995 and have always been
dwarfed by deaths related to heart disease and breast and prostate cancer.
But that may soon change.
In a long congressional hearing on bioterrorism prevention and preparedness on Thursday, even Democrats on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce questioned the fat AIDS budget.
“Since Sept. 11, we’ve had a new concern in this country called bioterrorism. And looking at the [Health and Human Services Department] budget, the
AIDS and sexually transmitted disease [part] has over a billion dollars in it,” said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. “But in bioterrorism, we have only about 18,
17 percent of that budget, like $180 million.”
Stupak proposed giving HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson the authority to “reprogram” AIDS funds for bioterror diseases.
“Thank you so very much,” Thompson said. “I think especially now, the department certainly needs more flexibility. We have to scrimp and scrape from every place we can” to come up with money to combat bioterrorism.
National Institutes of Health, which is under HHS, spends some $200 million a year for AIDS vaccine research alone, even though the preventable blood-borne retrovirus has never reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. and still affects primarily high-risk groups. The largest group, still, is homosexual men who engage in anal intercourse.
Meantime, the U.S. is hard-pressed to come up with vaccines to protect more than 280 million adults and children against deadly anthrax and smallpox outbreaks from terrorist attacks.
“Since I’ve become president, we’re spending 10 times as much per fatality on people with AIDS as people with breast cancer or prostate cancer,” boasted President Clinton in 1997.
The 1997 NIH budget allocated about $70,000 for each AIDS death, while cancer received less than $5,000, says Hudson Institute analyst Michael Fumento.
That same year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that AIDS cases fell 12 percent. The media attributed the drop to medical research, specifically drug therapies.
But Fumento notes that AIDS deaths peaked before the so-called “cocktail” drugs became widely available. Since the virus stayed limited to high-risk groups and didn’t spread throughout the general population, he says the decline was natural and statistically predictable.
“AIDS now kills about as many persons in a year as cancer kills every 12 days,” he said.
There is some evidence that AIDS money is being wasted.
A recently released report by HHS’s inspector general revealed that the CDC, which is under HHS, gave $700,000 last year to a San Francisco AIDS prevention project that spent the money on workshops for homosexual men that appeared to promote anal sex. “Great Sex” and “Booty Call” were names given two workshops.
One ad said: “Whether you like taking it or giving it, this workshop is for you. How do our roles turn us on and keep us pumping?”
Such federally funded projects have failed to cut HIV infection rates.
HIV rates among young homosexual and bisexual men across the country have recently climbed back to ’80s levels, CDC says. HIV infections among homosexual and bisexual men in San Francisco nearly tripled between 1997 and 1999.
Recognizing that HIV is no longer a death sentence, more and more homosexual men have stopped practicing safe sex, health experts explain.
“Some homosexuals stridently demanded a cure for AIDS so they could march right back to the bathhouses without fear of infection,” said Fumento, author of “The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS.”
Meanwhile, gonorrhea rates, including rectal gonorrhea, among homosexual men have soared again, increasing the risk of HIV transmission.
A recent study of homosexual men in San Francisco showed that those with gonorrhea had an HIV infection rate five times that of those without gonorrhea, since venereal sores act as an ideal entry point for the virus.
Though homosexual men have a higher incidence of gonorrhea than heterosexuals, sores only enhance the transmission of HIV. Anal sex by itself is “the overwhelming risk factor associated with AIDS – especially for the passive or recipient partner,” Fumento said.
The reason for the danger, he explains, is in part the difference between the cell structures of the tissues that make up the male urethra and rectum and the female vagina.
“While the vagina is constructed of tough platelike cells that resist rupture and infectious agents, and are designed to withstand the motions of intercourse and childbirth, the urethra and rectum are constructed primarily of columnar cells which tear or rupture easily,” Fumento said. “This allows semen to enter the more readily accessible blood vessels of the rectum
or, conversely, allows blood from a ruptured rectum to seep into the urethra of the insertive partner in anal intercourse.”
As of December 1998, there were an estimated 325,000 to 475,000 homosexual and bisexual men in the U.S. with HIV, including 135,000 with full-blown AIDS, many of them living longer thanks to new drugs.
Most of the roughly 450,000 Americans who have died of AIDS over the past two decades were homosexual men.
HIV spread outside the gay and bi community almost entirely through intravenous illicit drug use and blood transfusions and blood products, such as Factor 8, used by hemophiliacs.
Many heterosexuals were victims of tainted blood or plasma that was donated in the ’80s before the blood supply was screened for HIV.
“The vast majority of tainted blood has undoubtedly been from homosexuals,” who were among the most active blood donors in the ’80s, Fumento said.
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