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AIDS drugs' success fuels a new apathy among teens/young adults: New AIDS Cases Highest in South Florida
 
 
  HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, which poses a danger for a new generation unaware of its lethal nature.
 
"In the '80s you'd see people losing weight and becoming gaunt," says Charles Martin, 47, director of the South Beach AIDS Project, which provides AIDS information, condoms, testing and other services.."People called it a death sentence." It's different today, he says..
 
'Kids who haven't seen the devastation begin to look at AIDS as a manageable condition. One man who was 21 told me, 'I'm gay, so I'll probably get it eventually, so I might as well get it and take the medicines.' "
 
Still, 1,747 Florida residents died of AIDS in 2007, and 6,235 became infected with HIV -- signaling that the fight is far from over. Nationally, Fort Lauderdale ranked No. 3, Miami No. 4 and Palm Beach No. 11 among America's big urban areas in new AIDS cases in 2007, according to the Florida Department of Health.

 
Four-part video series: Living with HIV/AIDS in South Florida Related Content
0. Four-part video series: Living with HIV/AIDS in South Florida
 
BY FRED TASKER
ftasker@MiamiHerald.com
 
Damaries "Dee" Cruz remembers the exact date -- Nov. 23, 1991 -- when she learned she was HIV-positive. She got the virus from unprotected sex with her boyfriend.
 
She was 20.
 
It hurt when some of her friends abandoned her, she says. But she fought back, visiting schools, churches, TV and radio stations with a message of how to avoid HIV, as well as how to live with the condition.
 
"I got fed up with the stigma," says Cruz, now 37."I believe if we come out and speak about it, we can break it."
 
Cruz has taken her crusade to the Spanish-language Univision TV network as part of its Soy (I Am) campaign, and now is teaming up with a Florida International University journalism class to produce a four-part series of webisodes called The Stigma Stops With Me.
 
The webisode series can be viewed at
www.Miami Herald.com/299/story923541.html
 
"I want to bring a message of hope," Cruz says.
 
She does it at a time when the fight between HIV/AIDS and medical researchers is at a stalemate. The virus continues to mutate and spread, and researchers race to come up with new drugs to stop it.
 
Meanwhile, persuading young people to take crucial precautions is becoming ever more difficult.
 
A major problem today, ironically, is a product of the early success in the fight against AIDS. As powerful new drugs have reduced the number of full-blown AIDS cases, a new generation has grown up ignorant of its lethal nature.
 
"In the '80s you'd see people losing weight and becoming gaunt," says Charles Martin, 47, director of the South Beach AIDS Project, which provides AIDS information, condoms, testing and other services."People called it a death sentence."
 
It's different today, he says.
 
'Kids who haven't seen the devastation begin to look at AIDS as a manageable condition. One man who was 21 told me, 'I'm gay, so I'll probably get it eventually, so I might as well get it and take the medicines.' "

 
NO PROTECTION
 
Young people sometimes become lax and decide not to use condoms, he says.
 
"They just get tired of all the precautions," Martin says. 'They think they've missed the intimacy. They say, 'I don't want that barrier anymore.' "
 
Ignorance remains a problem as well, Martin said."We still have to overcome the idea that HIV is linked only to the gay community. It's especially true in the black community. They think they will never get it if they're not gay."
 
Renaldo Smith, 22, a senior in the FIU class that produced The Stigma Stops With Me, recalled that a friend told him he had stopped using condoms because they interfered with his pleasure. He didn't believe all the stories about AIDS.
 
It upset Smith because his cousin had died of AIDS at 26.
 
"After screaming at him about the risk he was taking . . . I showed him before-and-after pictures of my late cousin to wake him up. My friend got the point and pledged to start protecting himself," Smith wrote in an essay for the class.
 
Classmate Leilani Laureano, 22, says working on the project has been an eye-opener. "I'm going to be more careful in the future, always have my partner tested," she said.
 
SILENCE
 
Laureano was never told about HIV/AIDS at home, she wrote in a class essay:"In the Hispanic community, AIDS is a taboo. The only people with AIDS are gays, drug addicts or prostitutes. . . . The impact of this project and Dee's personal experience has changed me forever."
 
Dr. Margaret Fischl, a pioneering AIDS researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine, remembers the first case she saw -- in May 1982 -- involving a man in his 20s with Kaposi sarcoma, a rare cancer that shouldn't happen to someone so young.
 
"There was no obvious reason he was suffering this life-threatening problem," she says.
 
In years that followed, Fischl was instrumental in developing AZT, one of the first drugs to fight AIDS. Approved by the FDA in 1987, AZT saved many lives, but came with such side effects as anemia, slowed growth of bone marrow, fatigue, headache and muscle ache. And its effectiveness waned over time.
 
"Some people reacted negatively. They called it a poison," she said.
 
Over time, AIDS drugs became more potent, more sophisticated.
 
Today, powerful new "cocktails" of up to three drugs each can suppress the virus, and an HIV patient can take them in a single daily pill with such relatively mild side effects as headaches, nausea and dizziness, most of which are temporary, she said.
 
Well-controlled HIV patients can expect to live nearly full life spans, though the powerful drugs occasionally exacerbate problems with heart disease or certain cancers late in life, Fischl said.
 
FIGHT CONTINUES
 
Still, 1,747 Florida residents died of AIDS in 2007, and 6,235 became infected with HIV -- signaling that the fight is far from over. Nationally, Fort Lauderdale ranked No. 3, Miami No. 4 and Palm Beach No. 11 among America's big urban areas in new AIDS cases in 2007, according to the Florida Department of Health.
 
New drugs are on the horizon, but the worldwide search for an HIV-preventing vaccine has proved discouraging. So Fischl and others are working on something different -- a therapeutic vaccine. Given after a patient is HIV-positive, it would trigger the body's immune system to make a stronger fight against the invading virus.
 
Meanwhile, Damaries Cruz, who works as an AIDS educator with the Miami-Dade Health Department, combats her own HIV status in an unusual way. She has shunned the very drugs that Fischl and others say have kept the disease at bay. She is following a homeopathic regimen, using seaweed pills, vitamins, Chinese herbs, acupuncture, hypnosis and a Japanese healing technique called reiki.
 
"I've always been homeopathic. I don't even take Tylenol," she says.
 
Her doctor disagrees, but respects her decision.
 
"I've had it for 18 years; I'm still OK," Cruz says."If the time ever comes when I'm not, I will research drugs. But I don't see it happening."
 
How does Fischl react to homeopathy?
 
"As long as they keep track of their virus levels and the health of their immune systems, then if they choose alternate treatments, I think it's their choice."
 
She adds:"If they stay healthy."
 
 
 
 
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