Living With AIDS, Some Now Embracing a Surprisingly Long Future

Vince Crisostomo is about to buy a new car. That may not sound like a very bold thing to do, but for a person living with AIDS it is a big commitment -- a sign that he's confident he will be around long enough to make the payments.

"I have lived most of my adult life thinking I was dying, and because of that, I have done some things that I might not have done. … I probably said some things I would not have said. And then all of a sudden, I realize that maybe I am not dying, and I realize I have to shift and change. … I didn't have any future plans, and now I am trying to do that," Crisostomo said.

He was 28 when he contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and has been living with AIDS since 1998.

"At one point a doctor told me I probably had about six months to live," he said. "I think out of everything that has happened, that has been the hardest thing."

But a lot has changed in the 25 years since a mystery disease, now known as AIDS, was first reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Advances in medicine have made it quite possible to live for years, possibly even decades, with a disease that was once considered fatal.

"AIDS didn't become a disease you could actually live with until the late 1990s," said Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who treated the first reported AIDS patients in Los Angeles in 1981 and has treated hundreds of AIDS patients since. "It's only within the last seven years to 10 years that cocktails of medications can drive the virus into a very deep remission and allow people to get better immunologically and feel reasonably normal."

Of the estimated 40,000 Americans who will test positive for HIV this year, 80 percent can expect to live at least five more years, according to a recent report in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. Sixty percent could survive another decade. Thirty-two percent could live 20 additional years, and 10 percent could live 30 years after their diagnosis.

In fact, the risk of death due to AIDS has fallen more than 70 percent since the mid 1990s.

'AIDS Baby' Grows Up

Cristina Pena was one of the first "AIDS babies," those who were born HIV-positive in the early 1980s. The 21-year-old student has never really known a life without medication and the threat of AIDS.

She now takes five pills a day, down from the 11 or 12 a day she had to take when she was 7 years old.

Though Pena is technically considered an AIDS patient, she has never been very ill.

"I grew up fine. I had no idea I was even sick, and it wasn't even hinted," she said. "I had a few pills to take, and it was attributed to ear infections, and since I was so little, listening to your parents, it wasn't even a question."

When Pena was about 8, she started to wonder why she was taking so many pills.

"One night I sat down and ... I said, 'Mom, there's something wrong with me. Why do I have to take these meds?' And all the whys and questions started to erupt," Pena said.

She kept the truth hidden from all but her closest friends and family. She said her teenage years were the most difficult. In high school she started dating a classmate, who is still her boyfriend today. His parents had a hard time accepting her HIV status.

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