Good news, bad news on AIDS fight

Patients are living longer but no fall in infection rate

June 14, 2005|By SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

In a sign of both success and failure in combating the nation's AIDS crisis, federal officials said yesterday that for the first time more than 1 million Americans are now living with the HIV/AIDS virus.

Drug cocktails that became available a decade ago have helped HIV patients survive longer than ever before. But the number of new infections has stubbornly refused to fall despite years of efforts to prevent new cases and contain the outbreak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

"It is good news in a way, because it means the medications are working," said Manuel Rodriguez, education director at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agency Community Health Care Center One. "But it poses a huge challenge in prevention, because there are more people with the virus."

At an HIV prevention conference in Atlanta, the CDC reported that as of the end of 2003, at least 1.04 million Americans were living with the HIV or had developed AIDS from the virus. A year ago, the estimate was up to 950,000.

A big factor in the surge during recent years is increased success of several classes of medications that beat back the virus and allow people to live mostly symptom-free for years. The drugs have been further refined so that patients need only take a few pills a day instead of one or two dozen, as was true in the late 1990s.

But the main group of groundbreaking drugs, called protease inhibitors, often produce side effects, including possible links to heart disease.

Despite a CDC desire to cut the number of new HIV infections in half by this year, it has held steady at 40,000 per year since the 1990s.

The face of the epidemic has changed in recent years, with half of all new infections reported in the black community. Also, complacency and unsafe sex practices among some young gay men have led to more infections.

About one-quarter of infected people do not know they have HIV, the CDC said, and risk spreading the disease. A survey of 1,767 men who have sex with men in five cities found that 67 percent of the black gay men did not know whether they had the virus, it said.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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