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Awareness Key in Ongoing HIV, AIDS Fight

Experts emphasize importance of HIV testing

Beverly Sha, MD, infectious disease specialist at Rush

When Beverly Sha, MD, began her medical training in 1986 — just a year after HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was first identified — nearly 25,000 people had already died of AIDS in the U.S. alone.

“In the early part of my career, I expected that every person who walked in the door who I cared for, I would watch them die over the course of my career,” says Sha, an infectious disease specialist at Rush University Medical Center. “We could prolong their life to some degree, get them through certain infections, but at some point they would progress and die of AIDS.”

Today, she says, “That’s no longer the case at all.”

“It’s unbelievable how far we’ve come in treating this disease,” she says. “With a lot of other diseases, we haven’t made that kind of progress in 30 years.”

'Something you can manage'

Thanks largely to the antiretroviral “cocktail” of drugs that has become routine treatment for HIV infection, she can now tell her patients: “This is not a death sentence. This is something you can manage.”

But considerable challenges remain.

Although AIDS-related deaths have fallen from their peak in the 1990s, the HIV infection rate has remained about the same, with about 50,000 new cases reported each year. About one in four of new HIV infections are young people ages 13 to 24 years.

“Along with us now being able to tell people, it’s really a chronic infection, you can control it, there definitely is more complacency, especially in young, gay men,” Sha says. “They think, it’s not a big deal if I get it, because there’s treatment. But there still are consequences.” 

Long-term effects unclear

It’s unclear, for example, what kinds of risks today’s medications could pose over decades. There’s also evidence that people infected with HIV face a higher risk of heart disease and appear to be at increased risk for certain cancers.

More than 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the United States, and an estimated one in six of them don’t know they’re infected. That’s why health officials urge all sexually active people — from teens to 64-year-olds — to get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetimes.

“The sooner you’re diagnosed,” Sha says, “the better the outcome. The sooner we can intervene with these effective therapies.”

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