WASHINGTON — The rate of AIDS infection among military recruits has remained level after 15 months of screening, an indication that the overall rate of new infection in the nation may be decreasing, federal health officials said Thursday.
"I expected the figures to go up, absolutely," said Dr. Timothy Dondero, chief of surveillance and evaluation for the AIDS branch of the Atlanta-based federal Centers for Disease Control. "It's perhaps one of the first times in which our worst fears were not realized. I find it modestly encouraging."
Dondero cautioned, however, that it was not clear whether the military data reflects trends in the general population or "whether people are not electing to volunteer for the military if they perceive they are at some risk."
To Compare Trends
The agency said the military trends must be compared with trends among other groups. But Dondero said: "If the trend is real, that's very good news."
A level rate of infection, he said, "would imply that you're certainly not getting the rapid rise in infection that some have predicted." However, he added that a stable level of infection means that there still "is some new infection going on, although at lower rates."
AIDS cases reported to the CDC continue to increase, but, because of the lengthy incubation period, those cases represent infections that occurred several years before onset of the disease, the agency said. An average of 38.3 cases a day was reported for the period of October to December, 1986, compared with an average of 26.3 a day for the same period in 1985, a 46% increase.
"There had been quite a bit of speculation that the level of infection would parallel the level of cases, but we don't have evidence for that based on the military recruits," Dondero said.
The agency stressed, however, that volunteers for military service are screened by recruiting officials before their arrival at medical evaluation centers and "are not fully representative of the overall population, in that they underrepresent the . . . groups in the United States with the highest prevalence of (AIDS) infection."
Those groups include homosexual and bisexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners. Also, hemophiliacs, who are still at risk of developing the disease from prior exposure to contaminated blood products, typically do not volunteer for service.
"Moreover, applicants do not equally represent all socioeconomic and demographic groups in the population," the CDC said.
The agency added: "A growing awareness of the military . . . screening program may have increased self-deferral by persons who are . . . positive or who feel they may have been exposed to the virus."
The CDC said that it will continue to monitor military screening and compare the findings with other tested groups, including patients admitted to hospitals for reasons not related to AIDS. Preliminary data from this study is expected within several months, Dondero said.
Infection Level Stable
The agency said that between October, 1985, and December, 1986, 789,578 recruits were tested. Of these, 1,186 were positive, for an overall rate of 1.5 per 1,000 individuals tested, showing no change from past statistics in the level of infection.
The agency said, however, that infection among white males showed a "small but (statistically) significant" decline.
The highest rate was found in men over the age of 26, the CDC said. By race and ethnicity, blacks had the highest rate, 4.1 per 1,000, followed by 2.3 for Latinos, 1.0 for American Indians or Alaskan natives and Asian or Pacific Islanders, and 0.8 for whites. The rates were 1.6 for males and 0.6 for females.
The test indicates whether an individual has been exposed to the virus that causes AIDS, not whether he or she will contract the disease. However, a person who tests positive is presumed to be infected and infectious to others.