A total of 8,316 blacks died from AIDS last year, according to new figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means 49 percent of total AIDS deaths came from a group that makes up only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Thirty-two percent of AIDS deaths in 1998 were among whites, for a total of 5,436. Among Hispanics there were 3,114 deaths, or 18 percent.
Health officials say they fear the ramifications if AIDS -- once misunderstood as a gay disease -- now becomes viewed as an illness that affects mostly blacks.
"We know that often times, if a disease becomes higher in populations that are more marginalized in our society, we forget about those problems," said Dr. Helene Gayle, director of HIV prevention at the CDC. "We can't afford to forget about HIV."
While the development of new life-prolonging drugs has proved successful in reducing the number of AIDS-related deaths, health officials say that more efforts are needed to control and prevent the disease from spreading.
"The prevention is critical," says U.S. Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher. "We're talking about new strategies for getting information to communities that are most severely affected."
Satcher says HIV is now "affecting disproportionately people of color, women and the young," a stark change from the early '80s when white, gay males were the hardest hit by the virus.
Health officials have long blamed poverty and a lack of access to health care for higher rates of disease among blacks. But many blacks also have failed to realize that they are at risk as much as other groups, Gayle said.
"The fact that this was portrayed as a white, gay disease lulled the African-American community into a false state of security," she said.
Although prevention education has proven successful among gay, white males, new statistics suggest that a new campaign is needed to help stem the spread of HIV. Satcher says one problem that must be confronted is the general impression of the public that the disease has been cut down.
"We're worried...about the unintended consequences when you treat people with AIDS. They continue to, in some cases, behave recklessly and spread the virus to others," he says.
Since the 1980s, more than 300,000 have died of AIDS.
However, new drugs have helped stem the disease in recent years. According to new government figures released Monday, AIDS killed 17,047 people in the United States last year -- a decline of 20 percent from 1997. From 1996 to 1997, the drop in deaths was a much more dramatic 42 percent, which health officials attributed to the effectiveness of new drugs.
"In a period of only two years, new combination therapis cut the annual level of death in half," Gayle said. "But for the time being it appears that much of the benefit of these new therapies has been realized."
Researchers also announced Monday the results of studies using a new blood test that allows scientists to measure the time of new AIDS infections with much greater precision.
The conference was organized by the CDC and other sponsoring organizations. More than 2,000 scientists, doctors, researchers and advocates are expected to attend the event, which ends Wednesday.