One week before the 19th International AIDS Conference descended on Washington, D.C., the Federal Drug Administration approved the first drug approved to reduce the risk of HIV infection.

“Today’s approval marks an important milestone in our fight against HIV,” said FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg. “Every year, about 50,000 U.S. adults and adolescents are diagnosed with HIV infection, despite the availability of prevention methods and strategies to educate, test and care for people living with the disease. New treatments, as well as prevention methods are needed to fight the HIV epidemic in this country.”

The newly approved prevention drug Truvada, has been used for years to treat HIV patients. However, while some touted the drug as an HIV vaccine, clinical trials found it only reduced the risk of becoming infected by 75 percent.

AIDS is an infectious disease caused by HIV. One does not die from HIV, only when it becomes AIDS. While there is still no cure or vaccine on the horizon, advancements have been made in reducing deaths associated with the disease, improving the lifestyles of those living with the disease, and reducing the cost of drugs used to treat the disease.

Although a cure has not yet been discovered, scientists at the conference recently uncovered new evidence giving them hope. To date, there have been two HIV infected individuals who were cured of the disease after receiving bone marrow transplants.

In Allegheny County in 2010 there were less than 50 people living with AIDS and only four deaths, compared to 2000 when there were less than 50, but 25 deaths. In the peak year 2003 where there was between 200 to 225 living with AIDS and 50 to 75 deaths.

For those who have access to antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS, it is no longer a death sentence. However, since many people still fail to get tested, people are still dying of the disease. In 2009, there were 34,247 newly diagnosed AIDS cases, and 9,406 AIDS related deaths, nationally.

While many people still go without treatment, the rate of HIV/AIDS related deaths decreased by 77 percent between 1995 and 2007. Still, in 2006, HIV/AIDS was the 6th leading cause of death for those aged 25-44, down from the number one leading cause from 1994-1995.

While those who do not have health insurance, or whose health insurance does not cover HIV/AIDS treatment still sometimes have trouble accessing treatment, the cost of medication is also on the decline. According to a report released by the Clinton Foundation at the conference, the annual cost of treatment now averages $200, down substantially from the former high of $10,000.

While those at the conference await a cure, many of them are pushing “treatment as prevention,” the theory that those who take their medication regularly, have a decreased chance of passing the disease on to others. That’s why HIV/AIDS activists push for increased testing and encourage patients to receive treatment immediately after being diagnosed with the disease.

Testing is also important because HIV often presents no symptoms. It is often not until the HIV virus has deteriorated into AIDS that individuals will begin experiencing symptoms such as coughs and shortness of breath; seizures and lack of coordination; difficult or painful swallowing; mental symptoms such as confusion and forgetfulness; severe and persistent diarrhea; fever; vision loss; nausea, abdominal cramps, and vomiting; weight loss and extreme fatigue; severe headaches with neck stiffness.

Despite advances in HIV/AIDS diagnosis and treatment, the disease is still the deadliest sexually transmitted infection.

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