An epic battle — 30 years of fighting AIDS (video)

Thirty years ago next month, the CDC released the first report on a mysterious disease among gay men in Los Angeles.

The AIDS epidemic had begun. It has since claimed the lives of an estimated 600,000 Americans and is currently ravaging Africa, which is home to about two-thirds of the more than 33 million people estimated to have HIV, the virus that causes the disease.

About 1 million Americans are living with HIV currently, the CDC estimates.

Dr. James Curran was at the forefront of the CDC’s early research into the disease. Curran, now dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, spoke about the anniversary of the first CDC report last week to staff at the Ponce de Leon Center, Grady’s AIDS clinic in Atlanta.

Curran recounted the fear in the early days that AIDS was spread through casual contact. “Discrimination and fear have always been a problem with AIDS,’’ he said.

He recounted important figures in the battle against the disease. Besides researchers, they included Ryan White, the Indiana teenager with hemophilia who contracted AIDS through a contaminated blood product and died at age 18, and basketball star Magic Johnson, who publicly acknowledged the sexual promiscuity that had been part of his life as a celebrity athlete.

Curran also cited drug breakthroughs in the AIDS fight, including the drug AZT in the late 1980s, then the antiretroviral drugs in the mid-1990s. “HIV remains a very difficult public health problem, locally and globally,’’ he said. “We need to remain committed’’ to fighting it.

The Ponce de Leon Center, operated by Grady and with medical staff from Emory’s Division of Infectious Diseases, demonstrates the continued impact of the disease on Georgians. The clinic serves 5,000 patients, all of whom have an AIDS diagnosis, said Dr. Wendy Armstrong, the clinic’s medical director. It’s the largest single HIV clinic in the Southeast.

About half the patients have no insurance, with most of the rest relying on government Medicaid or Medicare coverage, she said.

In this country, “the Southeast is the epicenter of the disease,’’ Armstrong said.

The CDC estimates that at the end of 2007, the numbers of adults and adolescents living with AIDS were highest in the South. Georgia had the sixth-highest number of AIDS diagnoses in 2009. The estimates of the number of Georgians living with HIV/AIDS range from 38,000 to 50,000.

The CDC adds that AIDS rates in the South have remained stable in recent years.

The disease has hit the African-American community especially hard. Blacks account for almost half (46 percent) of people living with HIV in the United States, as well as 45 percent of new infections each year, the CDC says.

Armstrong said the South has high HIV numbers because of its relatively high poverty and low education levels, and because higher percentages of Southerners are African-Americans.

And despite antiretrovirals, people are still dying of AIDS because they are being identified too late in the progression of the disease, she said.

The challenge is getting people into treatment, providing them with the necessary medicines and overcoming social obstacles, Armstrong said.

Access to medications is a growing problem in Georgia. The state’s AIDS drug assistance program has an increasing waiting list that now exceeds 1,500, the second-highest total in the country. The drug companies have filled in the gap by helping many of these patients, and Grady has pitched in, too, Armstrong said. But patient advocates say more government funding is desperately needed.

Meanwhile, research into therapies, as well as a possible vaccine, shows promise. This month, a study found that early treatment with antiretroviral drugs may also prevent transmission of HIV. Here’s the Wall Street Journal’s account of the research.

“We’re still in the midst of an epidemic,’’ said Emory’s Dr. Carlos del Rio, a leading HIV researcher, at the Ponce de Leon Center last week. But he noted that much progress has occurred in 30 years of research. “People with HIV are not condemned to die anymore.’’

Watch video of Dr. James Curran below. (Video courtesy of Emory University.)