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New Focus in AIDS Fight

October 29, 1987

A major research project on the new risk frontiers for acquired immune deficiency syndrome, AIDS, has now received major funding and will be fully activated, none too soon. For the first time, significant focus will be put on the spread of the disease in minority communities and among intravenous drug users.

The Public Health Service is providing a total of $10 million for the new Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, appropriately based at UC-San Francisco but also involving UC-Berkeley, the pace-setting San Francisco Department of Public Health and the Bayview Hunter's Point Foundation that will actually take research into populations at risk of AIDS infection.

The significance of the project is evident in the statistics. San Francisco has been able to halt almost completely the spread of AIDS among homosexuals, with new infections running at less than 1%, and other communities have had success, if not equal to that of San Francisco, in slowing the spread in the gay community. But among drug abusers the rate of new infection is rising. In San Francisco it is estimated that 20% of drug users are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, that causes AIDS--a rate of infection that has doubled in this decade. In some Eastern cities, including New York and some in New Jersey, 60% to 80% of the even larger drug-user groups are infected. Only if the spread of the disease among these groups is controlled is there hope of containing the pandemic.

The research partnership now being activated for AIDS prevention was described as "absolutely extraordinary" by Dr. Julius R. Krevans, chancellor of UC-San Francisco. Equally extraordinary is the fact that research funds have been so slow in coming--a reflection of the inadequacy of both state and federal commitments. When the new program was announced, David P. Gardner, UC president, sought to put the best light possible on the work, noting that the state alone has committed $32 million to research on UC campuses over a three-year period. But that is a drop in the bucket.

The financial crisis was underscored by Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco, which has contributed more local funds than any other city and county. The San Francisco expenditure this year is $17 million. Other important programs have been sacrificed--a situation that cannot be prolonged. The answer lies in increased state and federal funding, she said. And she is right.

The difficulty of the task faced in containing the spread of AIDS among drug abusers illustrates the need for resources. There is no clear pictureof how to motivate behavior changes in a group that already is a victim of the sickness of addiction. Preliminary evidence indicates that no single strategy will work. There is still widespread denial of the danger, particularly in minority groups. And among drug abusers and in minority groups at risk there does not appear to be the sense of community that played a critical role in containing the spread among homosexuals. The program is further handicapped by the absence of drug-treatment facilities so that thousands of addicts must wait months to enroll in detoxification programs once they have decided to accept therapy.

Besides the prevention research program, the National Institutes of Health has added $4.5 million in its grants to UC-San Francisco to fund a new search for a drug to attack the disease. Researchers in the School of Medicine and the School of Pharmacy will utilize computer-driven technologies so new that no medicine now on the market has been developed by them. But the AIDS virus has proved to be a stubborn subject. There is no expectation of an early breakthrough in finding a cure. That makes the prevention research program all the more important, and urgent.

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