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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.





Supported by America's Pharmaceutical Research Companies

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