Scientists Battle At AIDS Frontlines

byron pitts
byron pitts
CBS

Dr. David Ho had just finished his medical training when he first saw the early faces of AIDS. That was 25 years ago, CBS Evening News national correspondent Byron Pitts reports.

"I wanted to know what was happening to these young men who came into the hospital," Dr. Ho says.

Dr. Ho was named Time Magazine's 1996 Man of the Year for his pioneering research on treatments that have allowed millions of HIV patients like Magic Johnson to live productive lives.

In the U.S., AIDS deaths have plummeted from more than 50,000 per year in the mid-90's to under 16,000 in 2004. But the number of cases are growing in minority communities.

Around the world, the story is even grimmer. In Africa and Asia, there are an estimated 33 million people living with HIV. And last year, more than 2.5 million people on those continents died of the disease.

"The HIV/AIDS pandemic would have to be one of the worst plagues in human history," Dr. Ho says.

That's because the life-saving drugs scientists like Dr. Ho have developed in the West aren't reaching the world's most desperate corners. So the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others are pushing education and preventative measures, while also pouring millions of dollars into the illusive goal of an AIDS vaccine.

"We have to outsmart it and be smarter than nature," says Dr. Sarah Schlesinger of Rockefeller University. "That's really tough."

Dr. Schlesinger is working on a vaccine with Dr. Ho. It's in its early stages.

"We're beginning incremental steps that are going to get us there. How long it's going to be between each step, I can't predict," Dr. Schlesinger said.

"I am impressed with the remarkable amount of knowledge we now have about this virus. Yet globally, we seem to be losing to the epidemic," Dr. Ho adds.