Latest figures on how many people are believed to have AIDS in the United States and in Western Europe illustrate why Congress, after months of consideration, has finally passed a major AIDS bill. The figures show a steady rise. They also make clear once again that the dimension of the current problem is significantly greater in the US than it is in Europe.
The $1 billion measure, which President Reagan is expected to sign, will authorize a major increase in funds available for AIDS research, and for prevention through education. The bill will also provide money to care for people with AIDS at home, instead of in more expensive hospitals.
Even before Congress had approved this program, it had provided the money to carry it out during the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. These funds were contained in an appropriations bill that became law nearly a month ago.
The new statistics, from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control, show that five times as many Americans as West Europeans have thus far been diagnosed as having the disease: 75,437 to 14,299. Further, America has four times as many AIDS cases per million inhabitants as does Switzerland, the highest country in Europe: 286 for every 1 million Americans, compared with 76 per million Swiss.
Dr. Jonathan Mann, director of the WHO's AIDS program, warns that by early this year about 150,000 people around the world had been diagnosed as having the disease, and that another 150,000 probably would be so diagnosed by year's end. Dr. Mann forecasts that by 1991 about a million people worldwide will have had AIDS.
Confronted with these figures and pressured by both researchers and AIDS activists, Congress has been concerned about US efforts to find a medical cure for the disease and to slow the spread of the ailment.
That concern has now produced agreement on a bill that represents Congress's first major attempt to set a US policy on AIDS.
To most AIDS activists, the core of the new measure, as approved by Senate and House, is its provision for more funds for research, and its implicit insistence that research be speeded up.
The measure requires several deadlines. Government agencies must decide within 21 days of application whether to approve AIDS research proposals, and AIDS research grants must be awarded within nine months.
These deadlines trouble some research scientists. Privately they worry that such pressure, while well intentioned, will prove counterproductive. They hold that past pressures have hampered some research by resulting in inappropriate hirings, because a project had to be fully staffed quickly: The people hired were not always those best suited for the program.
Similarly, these scientists say, some past research programs plunged ahead too fast without taking the time to select carefully the best direction in which to proceed.