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AIDS conference explores drug side effects

By
WAMARA MWINE

WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 -- The eighth conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections begins Monday in Chicago and will explore the impact of powerful drugs on AIDS patients.

The federal government is planning to use the weeklong forum to present research findings that suggest AIDS patients should wait a while before using drug mixtures, such as anti-HIV protease inhibitor drugs and AZT, according to ABCNEWS.COM. The government cites dangerous side effects and drug resistance outweighing any benefits of treatment. The new drugs are credited with reducing the number of deaths by 70 percent, but for the AIDS community the promise of cure has not lived up to reality.

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The government's announcement comes as the AIDS infection rates have increased in San Francisco and New York City, United Press International reported on Jan. 26. The rate of HIV infections has jumped to 2.2 percent of San Francisco's gay male population, from 1.04 percent in 1997. Those figures translate into 750 to 950 new infections in 2001 alone, according to a draft report on the AIDS Research Institute's Web site.

"Many are alarmed, some are saddened, and more than a few have a great deal of anger," the report said, adding the majority of these infections are occurring in men who have sex with men. The increase partly is attributed to antiviral drugs that are keeping HIV-positive individuals alive longer, making it possible for them to spread the virus to more people.

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"The AIDS epidemic changed forever when new treatments were unveiled in Vancouver in 1996. The perception of AIDS as a death sentence is gone. When people see HIV as a chronic, manageable illness, they make different choices," the report said.

Federal health officials say similar findings are beginning to surface in other major cities as well. A quarter of San Francisco's estimated 46,800 gay men are HIV-positive and about 80 percent of HIV infections in the city are among gay men. Studies indicate that high-risk sexual behavior is increasing among gay men in San Francisco because they do not see HIV as a death sentence any more.

"Prevention and health care efforts, which rely on death or danger avoidance motivation, may no longer resonate with gay men," the report said.

However, doctors believe that gradual treatment is best, especially with the strong drugs available to AIDS' patients.

"Although the therapy is beneficial, it is better later in the course of infection," says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. "We are now being a little more conservative in treatment."

But for many AIDS' patients facing the side effects is better than the devastating AIDS-related conditions -- such as infections, wasting and lymphoma. In order to maintain a health lifestyle, the expensive and more powerful drugs are necessary, according to physicians. The drug regimen is steep, and can include an average of 12 pills a day for the rest of a patient's life.

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Less ill people can hold off treatment and avoid the side effects, which include: unusual body fat distribution, high cholesterol levels, sugar metabolism problems, hip bone tissue death, kidney failure, liver metabolism alterations and loss of nerve sensations.

"I have had to change drugs a few times," says Michael Harrington, an AIDS patient and senior policy director for the Treatment Action Group, an organization dedicated to AIDS research efforts. Harrington has experienced kidney stones twice, high cholesterol, liverand peripheral nerve problems.

Doctors addressing the conference say AIDS drugs have been prescribed despite the fact that there is no long-term clinical testing showing at what point during HIV infection they could help. However, some doctors still stand behind prescribing drugs early in the treatment of AIDS.

"I would much rather be dealing with side effects of these medications than patients dying," says Dr. Robert Schooley, head of infectious diseases at the University of Colorado Health Services. "It won't be the last time the pendulum swings in AIDS treatment," Schooley says.

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