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AIDS Death Rate On The Rise

(As reported 2/1/99)
CBS News has learned that for the first time since the so-called triple drug cocktails appeared to turn HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic disease, the death rate from AIDS have started to go up, CBS News Correspondent John Roberts reports.

"I think there are clearly storm clouds on the horizon," said Dr. Michael Saag of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Saag was one of the first to prescribe the triple drug cocktail. In just the past year, death rates - which had dropped from 20 percent to two percent with the advent of the drugs - have now bounced back to eight percent because the virus either became resistant or patients had to stop taking the cocktails because of side effects.

"We may be heading for troubled waters in the next two to three years in the sense of more patients failing in terms of lack of control of virus, then getting sick and dying," he said.

And on Tuesday, scientists will learn that in the most tightly controlled study of anti-AIDS drugs in the country, after three years, they were failing almost 40 percent of the time.

"It would be folly to say that the epidemic is over either for the people who are infected or for people who are currently getting infected," said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health.

To try to stem the tide, researchers at University of Alabama Birmingham and Massachusetts General Hospital have employed a new treatment strategy.

Patients like John Ceravsky are going off the cocktails for brief drug holidays. The virus is allowed to come back a bit - in hopes it will rev up the immune system to fight it. Early results are promising.

"Although the virus seems to be coming back, it's coming back a lot slower. It's not bursting back - it's creeping back," Ceravsky said.

The only way to truly break the epidemic is with a vaccine. That's why the discovery that HIV probably came from a species of chimpanzee widely hunted in western Africa may be so important. If scientists can understand why the virus didn't affect the chimps, it may explain why it is so deadly in humans.

"And that in turn may help more rational approaches toward therapies and vaccine development," said Beatrice Hahn of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Or, it may just be another dead end. But one thing is certain: While the drug cocktails still work for a large number of people, their increasing failure rate had added a new sense of urgency to the search for new treatments and the elusive vaccine.

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