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Published on December 01, 2016

On World AIDS Day, Cone Health Clinic Looks at Progress

The Cone Health Regional Center for Infectious Diseases has brought hope to patients for 26 years.

Research director Charles Hansen remembers the early days of HIV/AIDS: “We had no medicines and then we had just one, AZT. You took a handful of pills every day, and the side effects were horrible. And still so many people died.” The Cone Health Regional Center for Infectious Diseases (RCID) was one of the few places in the area where people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) or the virus that causes it, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), could turn for help. Throughout the 26 years since the clinic began treating patients, it has offered something more important – hope.

Jimmy Epps found hope at RCID when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Through the years, he has taken “10 to 15 different medications.” He changed medications when they no longer worked or something better came along. One medication was even chewable. “Did not taste all of that pleasant. It tasted like chalk,” says the retired social security counselor. “You chewed it quick, swallowed it fast and drank lots of water.”

Finding those better medications has been a big part of the work RCID does. RCID has been a member of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) for the past 26 years. That made all of the difference with Epps. “If it weren’t for the clinical trials in the early days, I wouldn’t have been able to get my medications,” he says of the very expensive drugs.

Epps looks back on the care he has received over the past quarter of a century and appreciates the hope he has found in the changing ways HIV/AIDS is treated. Today, he takes only four pills a day. “This year, my health has been absolutely wonderful and I very thankful,” says Epps.

Since the early epidemic, the ACTG has revolutionized the care of HIV-infected patients. No longer a “death sentence,” most newly diagnosed HIV patients manage their infections by taking just a single tablet a day. Not only have the numbers of pills dropped, but gone too are intolerable side effects, making them easier to keep taking. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the 1,500 patients at RCID comply with their treatment to the point where the virus is essentially undetectable in their blood. Today, HIV patients have life expectancies that are about the same as those without the virus. “One of my patients says it best in that he no longer struggles trying to survive and live with HIV. He thrives in his life, fully in control through the pills he takes each and every day,” says Kees Van Dam, MD, director of research for RCID.

About 200 new patients are seen every year, and undiagnosed HIV remains a tremendous problem. Greensboro-High Point is ranked 20th among major metropolitan areas in the United States in numbers of new infections per capita. So Van Dam urges testing. “Getting into care, if positive, is critical,” says Van Dam. “Too many avoid testing and do not know their status. Others, who are positive, struggle with fears, stigma and other barriers, and go untreated.”

Still Van Dam hopes to see an end to the AIDS epidemic. RCID will take part in a new trial early next year that will compare a daily pill that helps prevent infection to a shot that is only needed once every two months. “This isn’t a vaccine, but it may bring us closer to a more effective, long-lasting means to prevent infection. We hope that this will help us bend the curve of this epidemic and one day end HIV infection.”

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