Researchers stunned by rapid HIV spread

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The march of the HIV/AIDS epidemic around the globe continues to stun health experts--a United Nations report Tuesday counted 38.1 million men, women and children infected.

That is twice as many victims as World Health Organization experts projected in 1991, when knowledge about the human immunodeficiency virus and its killer stage--AIDS--was expanding quickly.

"The size of the epidemic was heavily underestimated," said Peter Piot, director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/ AIDS. "One of the mistakes was the expectation that this would peak several years ago."

The 21.8 million people whose lives have been claimed by AIDS since it erupted with volcanic fury in the 1970s equals the death toll from the global Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918, said Piot. Some 3 million will have died of AIDS in 2000, making it the single leading disease-specific cause of death.

Now, said UNAIDS chief epidemiologist Bernhard Schwartlander, "the big question is where is this thing going?"

The answers, he said, will come from big countries like Nigeria, India, Russia and China. Schwartlander does not believe those countries will follow the Botswana model. There, against all expectations, 35 percent of people are infected and life spans have plummeted to levels not seen since the Middle Ages.

But second only to Africa in infection rates was the Caribbean, where 60,000 were newly infected this year with HIV. That was more than double the rate in Western Europe.

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