The Face of AIDS in America Today
By Larry Lucas, Deputy Vice President
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America
A lot can happen in 25 years – an entire generation of
babies are born, grow into adults, maybe even start their own
families. In 1981 Ronald Reagan was president, the United States
was locked in a Cold War and the “MTV generation”
was just tuning in. It was also 25 years ago that the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported the first cases
of a rare pneumonia and skin cancer among gay men. These were
the first recognized cases of AIDS.
We’ve learned so much in a quarter century. We now know
that AIDS – Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome – is
caused by infection with a virus called human immunodeficiency
virus (HIV). This virus is passed from one person to another through
blood-to-blood and sexual contact, not casual contact like hugging
and shaking hands. We know HIV and AIDS can infect anyone –
women and men, gay and straight or young and old.
We also know a lot more about treating HIV and AIDS. If you were
diagnosed with AIDS in 1990, you might expect to live for only
26 months. During that time, you would be likely to contract a
number of opportunistic infections that would make your remaining
days unpleasant and painful. The only treatment available had
to be taken every four hours – around the clock –
and had serious side effects. But thanks to the approval in 1995
of protease inhibitors – and further advancements in new
medicines and combination therapies in the decade since –
the AIDS death rate has fallen by 70 percent. If diagnosed today,
a range of treatment options (including different combinations
of drugs) might be able to keep you symptom-free for years to
come. In fact, there are 77 new medicines and vaccines in development
to treat HIV/AIDS and related conditions, according to a new survey
by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
And yet, in spite of these treatment advances, HIV is what Newsweek
has called “an epidemic among black women, their husbands,
boyfriends, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters.” African
Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population but account
for more than half of new HIV diagnoses, according to the CDC.
The situation is so serious that Cathy Cohen, a political scientist
at the University of Chicago and author of a book about African
Americans and AIDS, called HIV “the life and death of black
people” in a recent interview with Newsweek.
Lack of awareness is a big obstacle to combating AIDS in the
African American community. Many people, especially women, may
not realize they are at risk because they do not know their partner’s
risk factors – such as unprotected sex with multiple partners,
bisexuality or intravenous drug use. Adding to the risk, many
more might be in the dark about whether or not they have been
infected with HIV, refusing to be tested. For example, a CDC study
showed that of participating African American men who tested positive
for HIV, 67 percent were unaware of their infection.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, there
is hope. Since the virus that causes AIDS was first identified
more than two decades ago, 86 medicines to treat HIV/AIDS and
related conditions have been approved. These discoveries are making
a life-or-death difference for many coping with these conditions.
“AIDS didn't become a disease you could actually live with
until the late 1990s,” said Dr. Michael Gottlieb in an interview
with ABC News; Gottlieb treated the first reported AIDS patients
in Los Angeles in 1981 and has treated hundreds of AIDS patients
since. “It's only within the last seven years to 10 years
that cocktails of medications can drive the virus into a very
deep remission and allow people to get better immunologically
and feel reasonably normal.”
Managing HIV/AIDS often requires taking a combination of cutting-edge
medications. But these innovative treatments don’t help
anyone if they remain out of financial reach. Fortunately, there
are assistance programs available. Last year, America’s
pharmaceutical research companies launched the Partnership for
Prescription Assistance (www.pparx.org or 1-888-4PPA-NOW), bringing together more than 475 different
public and private assistance programs in one place. So far, more
than 3 million people have been connected to programs that can
provide free or nearly free medicines.
AIDS is not an issue we can afford to ignore. If the last 25
years have taught us anything, it should be that. We must work
together – lawmakers, pharmaceutical companies, advocates
– to face down this enemy. If you need information about
HIV/AIDS, including testing locations, please contact the CDC
24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 1-800-CDC-INFO or www.cdc.gov/hiv/.
No one is immune, everyone is affected.