A military physician predicted today that AIDS eventually will spread among heterosexuals at the same rate found recently among homosexuals -- a claim disputed by several public-health officials.
Dr. Robert Redfield based his conclusions on a study of 41 military personnel diagnosed and treated for AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Although most of the men had one of the known risk factors -- being homosexual or bisexual, Haitian or an intravenous-drug abuser -- "there was a group who admitted to none of these factors," Redfield said.
"These men did give a history of multiple heterosexual contacts, between 50 and 100 during the previous five years," he said. "And many of them have employed prostitutes, particularly overseas." He said there was no proof that they had contracted AIDS through heterosexual contact, but "the evidence suggests that's one possibility we should consider."
Redfield said that "as AIDS enters the heterosexual population, I think it will repeat the rate of spread that occurred in the homosexual population during the last four years."
Public-health officials who have been studying the deadly epidemic since 1981 disputed this.
"We must think that transmission of the AIDS virus will not be as rapid among heterosexual men and women as among gay men," Dr. James Curran, head of the AIDS task force at the Centers for Disease Control here, told the conference. "Both the AIDS virus and AIDS itself have been present in the U.S. among heterosexual men and women since the late 1970s. And yet at most 5 percent of AIDS cases can be attributed to heterosexual transmission."
Dr. David Sencer, New York City health commissioner, said that "in New York we have not seen any evidence of increased spread of AIDS among people who don't give a history of contact with members of risk groups. There is no evidence that AIDS is breaking out into the general population."
Sencer said he would not accept the absence of risk factors simply because the men said so: "If I were a soldier and I were gay or bixesual, I would be hard put to admit it. That's grounds for involuntary discharge."
Dr. Harold Jaffe, a member of the CDC task force, said he found it "peculiar that there is no known reservoir of AIDS among prostitutes in a foreign country. That is what you'd expect if the soldiers in Dr. Redfield's study got the disease from prostitutes overseas."
Jaffe said that those most likely to contract AIDS heterosexually are those whose steady partners belong to a known risk group. He said there is "some suggestion" that risk increases for those frequenting prostitutes. He added that people with multiple heterosexual partners may be at some increased risk, but "we have seen no evidence of that in the U.S. so far."