New Life

It may be the thought that counts, but only donations will keep the Colorado AIDS Project out of trouble.

Nevertheless, people didn't understand that AIDS could only be spread through the exchange of sexual bodily fluids and blood, and many feared they could get sick by shaking someone's hand, by being sneezed on or by sitting on a public toilet seat. "Longtime partners of AIDS patients weren't allowed in emergency rooms, and the city wanted to shut down all the gay bathhouses," Lease recalls. "It was that kind of fear that CAP started in."

In response to the disease, which was quickly becoming an epidemic -- the CDC reported 251 cases in the United States in February 1982, and 471 cases just five months later -- Lease and Patrick Gourley, a volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, created the Colorado AIDS Project ("Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive," March 2, 2000). Its purpose was to educate people about safe sex, to raise money to help those who'd been infected and could no longer work or pay their bills, and to offer support and friendship to dying victims of the disease in their final months.

In 1983, Lease hired Julian Rush, a former United Methodist minister, to head the project, and in 1984, CAP became its own, independent nonprofit. Rush led CAP for the next seventeen years; Lease moved on to become the executive director of the Empowerment Program, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income women secure housing and jobs. (The program later expanded to include a Women's AIDS Project.)

Al McKittrick, of the People With AIDS Coalition, says half of his boardmembers are people of color.
John Johnston
Al McKittrick, of the People With AIDS Coalition, says half of his boardmembers are people of color.
Grant writer Joe Mauro left the Colorado AIDS Project in  May 1999.
John Johnston
Grant writer Joe Mauro left the Colorado AIDS Project in May 1999.

In the beginning, CAP and similar organizations across the country catered to a mostly gay white male clientele. In 1986, 84 percent of Coloradans with HIV were "men who have sex with men," according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of that group, 84 percent were white. (The CDPHE and other public health departments use the term "men who have sex with men" because not all of those men consider themselves gay.)

The image people had of AIDS in the early days was of an emaciated man with sunken cheeks. Although people can live with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) for years before developing AIDS, in the 1980s, the disease killed quickly once it progressed to AIDS.

But treatment of the disease took a dramatic turn in 1995, when the United States Food and Drug Administration approved new drugs called protease inhibitors, which vastly slow down the spread of HIV in the body. When the drugs became available the next year, AIDS-related deaths began to drop. In Colorado, the number of AIDS-related deaths declined by 46 percent between 1996 and 1997, according to the CDPHE; across the country, the number dropped from more than 50,000 in 1995 to approximately 16,000 in 1999.

Furthermore, massive education campaigns appeared to be having an effect, as the number of new HIV infections annually decreased from more than 150,000 in the early 1980s to 40,000 in 2000.

Peter Brown, who first became involved with CAP as a client and is now the organization's residential-services manager, is an example of someone whose life has been prolonged and improved because of the new drugs. When Brown was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1993, his doctor told him he had six months to live. He had only six T cells at that time (a healthy person has anywhere from 900 to 1,300 T cells). But because of the drugs that already existed, Brown was able to live long enough to see -- and benefit from -- the development of protease inhibitors. His T-cell count is now up to 570, but his drug regimen is far from simple.

"I take fourteen pills a day. There are people who take three times that amount," he says. "To keep on top of that is an organizational nightmare. In order for the medications to be absorbed into the system properly, you have to watch your diet and limit your fatty intake. Some pills need to be taken two hours before a meal, and some have to be taken two hours after a meal. And the virus can mutate if you don't take the medications consistently."

As people with HIV began to lead longer and healthier lives, many in the public confused the virus-stemming drugs with a cure. Magic Johnson's situation exemplifies this confusion: On November 7, 1991, Johnson announced that he had HIV; ten years later, he still appears to be the same picture of health that he was when he played for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The result in some cases was that the number of newly infected gay men began to rise again. In Colorado, for example, the number of HIV and AIDS diagnoses increased by 6 percent between 1999 and 2000, reports the CDPHE. (There are now between 650,000 and 900,000 people living with the disease in the United States and roughly 13,000 people living with HIV or AIDS in this state.)

These latest numbers lead people like CAP director Maloney to conclude that medical advances are causing young people, in particular, to become complacent. "A lot of teens think AIDS is just another sexually transmitted disease, and that if you take a drug cocktail, you'll be fine," she says. "AIDS is older than them, so they were too young to see all the people dying from the disease."

And even though the drugs are helping many people live longer, they don't work for everyone. The medications are hard on the kidneys and liver, so people with drinking problems often can't tolerate them. Others experience side effects such as nausea and diarrhea so severely that they can't leave their homes. Furthermore, recent studies show that more people are becoming infected with strains of the virus that are resistant to medication. Fourteen percent of HIV-infected people in the United States and Canada between 1999 and 2000 had strains that didn't respond to one or more of the current drugs compared to 3.5 percent between 1995 and 1998.

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