Medical advances in fight against HIV/AIDS

LOS ANGELES U.S. researchers say it'll be an important tool in fighting the virus. Testing for /*HIV*/ has come a long way since the early days of the epidemic. /*AIDS*/ patients fortunate to survive have all witnessed many changes.

"In the back of my mind I have always thought that I'm going to live to see the cure," said 46-year-old Raul Alonso, who was diagnosed with AIDS 20 years ago. "Back when I was diagnosed, that's all you heard, it was rejection even from the doctors you went to see because nobody knew what the deal was with the illness."

Family members avoided touching him and friends turned their backs on him.

"You feel like your whole world just comes tumbling down," said Alonso.

He got so sick his weight dropped to 90 pounds.

In the late '80s, the introduction of antiretroviral drugs like AZT and protease inhibitors helped turn AIDS from a deadly disease into a chronic one. In 1988, health officials launched the first national AIDS education campaign.

In 1997, U.S. deaths from the disease dropped dramatically. Today, new cases are holding steady.

"Well we have about 56,000 annually in the United States, that's been pretty consistent for the last few years," said Craig Thompson, executive director of /*AIDS Project Los Angeles*/ (APLA).

He says while less HIV infections are turning into full blown AIDS, the number of cases won't drop.

The latest studies offer hope in the area of prevention. Last summer, researchers announced success with a new vaginal AIDS gel that could protect women against HIV transmission. And last month, scientists discovered an AIDS drug called /*Truvada*/ can actually prevent HIV infection.

"I think we are starting to see more of these biomedical interventions that all put together are very exciting," said Thompson.

Alonso has lived through the darkest part of the AIDS epidemic, but every passing day strengthens his belief that a cure is not far off.

"There's hope out there now. It's coming down the pipe," he said.

Researchers are also making gradual progress in developing an AIDS vaccine. Scientists say HIV can mutate into many, vastly different strains so the long, arduous process continues.

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