AIDS Marks 20th Anniversary
June 5, 2001 --Twenty years ago today, the first cases of a strange new disease that ravages the immune system were reported to the public by the CDC in Atlanta. Because all five cases were homosexual men with similar symptoms, officials at that time believed they were dealing with a gay-related disease.
They were wrong.
Twenty years later, the disease we now know as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, has been diagnosed in three quarters of a million people in the U.S. More than half of those people -- 448,060 -- have died. Today, an estimated 800,000-900,000 people in the U.S. are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and about one-third of them don't even know they're infected.
"Like so much of the epidemic, this is a time of apprehension and a time of reflection," says Kevin Frost, vice president for clinical research and prevention programs at AmFar (American Foundation for AIDS Research). "Obviously, enormous progress has been made. There are significant accomplishments that we can point to in the course of the last 20 years that we should all be proud of. We've made enormous strides in reducing the death rate in this country."
But Frost says the anniversary also makes many in the AIDS community feel frustrated by the inability to reach people at risk for infection and provide them with the education and tools they need to keep themselves safe.
Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, reported last week that one group at particular risk in the U.S. is gay and bisexual black men. In this group, the rate of HIV infection approaches that seen in the African nation of Botswana.
Some have suggested that infections are continuing to rise among young gay and bisexual men because of an "it can't happen to me" attitude as well as a belief that AIDS treatments have made the disease manageable. But while the medications used to treat the disease have become better and more effective in the last two decades, they do not offer a permanent strategy for dealing with infection. In fact, recent research indicates that resistance to a single anti-HIV drug tripled from 3.5% to 14% since 1996 and resistance to multiple drug regimens has increased from less than half a percent to nearly 6%. When patients develop resistance, the pool of drugs that doctors can use to treat them becomes much smaller.
Fortunately, researchers are now working on ways to combat resistance, including one promising drug currently being tested that is said to be 1,000 times more powerful than any of the available anti-AIDS drugs. HIV has the ability to change its shape to evade medications attempting to bind to it and prevent it from making new copies of itself. The new drug, known as TMC-126, seems to be flexible enough to bind to HIV regardless of what shape it takes.