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Will AIDS Always Be With Us?

WebMD Health News

Nov. 30, 2001 -- Dec. 1, 2001, is not the first World AIDS Day. It won't be the last -- and experts warn we may never see that day.

"HIV and AIDS are here to stay," long-time AIDS researcher John P. Moore, PhD, tells WebMD.

How can this be? Doesn't each year bring news of yet another new AIDS drug? Aren't we close to an AIDS vaccine? Despite progress, the answer remains a firm "no."

We'd like to think that a cure is possible -- and at hand. We'd like to think that a soon-to-be discovered vaccine will make AIDS go away. The truth is that HIV rages on. It's already devastated Africa. It's out of control in parts of India. It's on a rampage in Eastern Europe. And the early epidemic in China looks awfully familiar.

"Eradicating smallpox and, almost, polio from the planet by vaccination were massive, long-term endeavors," says Moore, professor of medicine at Cornell University. "Making those vaccines was relatively straightforward compared to the scientific obstacles involved in creating and manufacturing an HIV vaccine. In 50 years we may have one that works -- conceivably so in 10 years -- but certainly not next year. Without a vaccine, HIV will continue to spread through susceptible populations, most of which will not be able to afford the therapies they need."

Other leading AIDS researchers see the same picture. John W. Mellors, MD, is director of the HIV/AIDS program and chief of the infectious disease division at the University of Pittsburgh.

"In the next year we will see an expanding epidemic," Mellors tells WebMD. "Recent events will make the epidemic worse, because fewer resources are being put toward control. Let's hope for a miracle -- an effective vaccine."

Robert T. Schooley, MD, is chair of the U.S. Adult AIDS Clinical Trials Group and head of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He suggests that pinning all our hopes on a vaccine -- while failing to treat people dying of AIDS with existing drugs -- is a doomed strategy.

"People have underestimated the spread of the virus, and have been overly optimistic about vaccine prospects. And people have underestimated the potential of [drugs] to reduce sickness and death," Schooley tells WebMD. "I would predict that HIV will continue to spread. It will take advantage of poverty and human dislocation as it has since the beginning of the epidemic. I suspect the new areas of most precipitous growth over the next one to five years will be countries of the former Soviet Union, China, and the Indian subcontinent."

What this means, Moore says, is that unless something can be done, AIDS will kill more people than all other infectious diseases combined.

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