The government recommended for the first time Thursday that people exposed to the AIDS virus (search) from rapes, accidents or occasional unsafe sex or drug use be given potentially lifesaving medications that can keep them from becoming infected.

Federal health officials had previously recommended emergency drug treatment only for health-care workers accidentally stuck with a needle, splashed in the eye with blood, or exposed in some other way on the job. That recommendation was first made in 1996.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded that recommendation Thursday. It said the treatment should start no more than 72 hours after a person has been exposed to the virus, and the drugs should be used by patients for 28 days.

"The severity of the HIV epidemic dictates we use all available tools to reduce infection," said Dr. Ronald Valdiserri of the CDC.

He stressed that emergency drug treatment is a "safety net," not a substitute for abstinence, monogamy, and the use of condoms and sterile needles.

"It is clearly not a 'morning-after pill,'" he said.

For years, U.S. guidelines have trailed those in European countries, Australia and Brazil, which long have had policies in favor of the use of HIV drugs to prevent infection in rape victims.

Without a national policy, New York, California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island and cities such as San Francisco and Boston came up with their own such procedures.

"It's unconscionable they didn't have a policy for rape victims. It's just ludicrous. They knew they were well behind the curve," said Dr. Charles Gonzalez, assistant professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and a member of the New York State AIDS Institute Medical Guidelines board.

The CDC said the regimen is not recommended for habitual drug users who share needles or people who frequently engage in risky sex. Those people would have to take the medication practically nonstop, which the health agency does not endorse.