Individuals who live with AIDS victims but are not their sexual partners do not become infected with the AIDS virus even after months of close personal contact, according to a study published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
The study offers strong reassurance that acquired immune deficiency syndrome is not transmitted by casual contact, suggesting that fears about transmission of AIDS in schools, workplaces and other public places are unfounded.
"The kind of contact that went on in the household setting of our patients was much more than casual," said Dr. Gerald H. Friedland, associate professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and principal author of the study. He said that if infection did not occur in this setting, "then the likelihood of it occurring in workplace and school settings and other public places is really so remote . . . that people are not at any increased risk."
An editorial by Dr. Merle A. Sande of San Francisco General Hospital in the same issue of the journal applauded the study, calling it "a powerful argument with which to counter the public's fear of casual contagion . . . ." Friedland and his coworkers monitored 101 individuals living in the same household with a victim of AIDS or AIDS-related complex, a milder manifestation of infection with the HTLV3 virus that causes the disease.
The group under study -- 68 children and 33 adults -- lived with infected persons for an average of 22 months, sharing household items and in many cases assisting them with bathing, dressing and eating.
Only one of the 101 household members -- a 5-year-old girl -- developed positive blood tests indicating infection with the AIDS virus. She was the daughter of a woman with AIDS, and there was evidence that she had been infected by her mother at birth, one way the disease is transmitted.
Extensive blood tests and examinations were conducted, and none of the other 100 household members became ill or showed any sign of infection with the virus. The researchers said the finding was particularly impressive because the families of these AIDS patients, 72 percent of whom were drug addicts, were poor and lived in crowded conditions where transmission through personal contact would be expected to be highest.
Although AIDS symptoms may not appear until years after an individual becomes infected with the HTLV3 virus, studies show that a positive blood test, indicating antibodies to the virus, develops within about four months of infection. The researchers therefore concluded enough time elapsed during the study to pick up all potential cases of infection in the households.
In his editorial, Sande said that the failure of the AIDS virus to spread within households may be explained by its apparent rarity in saliva of infected individuals. A study of saliva samples from 83 infected persons isolated the HTLV3 virus in only one.
Yesterday, President Reagan announced that he has ordered the surgeon general to prepare a major federal report on AIDS. "We are going to continue to develop and test vaccines, and we're going to focus also on prevention," the president told employes of the Department of Health and Human Services. Officials said the report should be ready within two to three months.