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AIDS Marks 20th Anniversary

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Some experts worry that news of better medications may give the false impression that improvements in medication make HIV somehow less deadly and encourage those at highest risk to be less fearful of infection. Most of all, experts want HIV and AIDS to stay in the public consciousness, and they look toward better, more wide-reaching prevention programs.

"We still have 40,000 new infections every year," says Frost. "Much of my thinking around this 20th commemoration is ... why aren't we doing all that we could be and should be to stem the tide of this epidemic?"

The anniversary also brings to mind another major goal of AIDS research: to find an effective vaccine.

It's difficult, even for vaccine insiders like Mark Feinberg, MD, to predict how long it will be before a vaccine is available to prevent people from becoming infected and/or limit the amount of virus in an already infected person's body.

Feinberg, director of the Emory University Vaccine Center in Atlanta, says he doesn't think it will happen any time in the next five years.

"Fortunately, there is a lot more activity taking place in HIV vaccine research today, and I think there is a clearer sense of what direction we need to move in," he tells WebMD. "And the level of science is higher. All of those things are good, but it just is going to take a while for the studies to answer the questions, and if what we are testing now doesn't behave as well in humans as it does in monkeys -- and there are a number of reasons to think that it may not -- we'll have to wait longer."

Two of the most promising vaccines use genetically altered versions of a common cold virus and a smallpox virus to deliver immune-boosting substances into the body, Feinberg says. These vaccines are just beginning human testing.

Although another vaccine called VaxGen is a little further along in human testing and has raised hopes among some in the AIDS community, experts including Frost and Feinberg are doubtful that it will emerge as a viable contender in the vaccine race.

"I believe we will have vaccines that alter the natural history of the infection and contribute to containment of the epidemic," Feinberg says. "[They're] just not here yet."

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