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Hope Award

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Moreno And Tilly Team Up Against AIDS

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Jennifer Tilly and Rita Moreno advocate better education to defeat AIDS.
Rita Moreno and Jennifer Tilly are a showcase for beauty and talent. But both award-winning actresses will soon be sharing the stage to focus the spotlight not on themselves but on HIV/AIDS awareness.

"The most important and immediate message is that HIV/AIDS can kill you," says Moreno, who won an Oscar for her role in West Side Story. "And if it doesn't kill you, it can kill someone else. If you're having sex, you need to protect yourself and others."

Hosted by Bound star Jennifer Tilly, the seventh annual Tony Awards Party on June 8 will benefit Aid For AIDS and the Actors' Fund. Moreno will be presented the Julie Harris Award for Lifetime Achievement for her tireless devotion to helping fight HIV/AIDS.

"I am thrilled to host this benefit," says Tilly whose movies include Liar, Liar and Bullets over Broadway. "Come on, it's Rita Moreno and on top of that we have a chance to help people fighting HIV/AIDS who truly need our compassion and support."

Moreno has long supported AIDS charities and was one of the first major stars to promote awareness.

"A lot of us saw it early on as a plague and a scourge and that it needed immediate attention because our government was turning the other way," recalls Moreno, who is the only female performer ever to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. "Back then there was so little known about the disease. Now we have treatments that prolong life and we continue to hope for a vaccine or cure."

"I naturally got involved because the community I work in was among the first to be devastated by HIV/AIDS," Tilly says. "I have lost several close friends to AIDS so I am doing everything I can to help raise awareness.  AIDS is not gone. It's still here and we need to protect ourselves."

Short of abstinence, condoms are still the best protection against HIV. But many worry that young people, straight or gay, are not paying attention to the safe sex message.

"We're seeing more and more young people at risk," Moreno says. "It's very upsetting that so many young people feel that AIDS can't harm them."

"Young people need to know they have to practice safe sex every time, not just when it's convenient," Tilly advises. "This is a terrible disease and sex is not worth dying for."

Risk assessment

Core communities like African-Americans, young people under 25, and heterosexual women make up the list of new at-risk groups.

"Young people are somehow mistaken that HIV is no longer a threat -- that you can take these new drugs and be fine," Tilly notes. "Because of this we're seeing increases in new cases again."

Moreno is especially concerned about the rising infection rates among women.

"A lot of women don't seem to know how to take control of their sexual lives," Moreno says. "By that I mean they are unable to say no to sex if the man won't wear a condom."

"But I don't think it's enough to reach just the young women," Moreno adds. "We have to reach their parents and help them understand. Parents have to get more deeply involved in protecting their children. The good old Nancy Reagan days of 'Just Say No' aren't enough."

And simply feeling fine doesn't mean a person isn't infected.

Currently, the only way to determine with near certainty whether you are infected is to get tested. Many HIV positive people do not have any symptoms at all for many years.

Some of the possible warning signs of HIV infection include:

  • rapid weight loss
  • dry cough
  • recurring fever or profuse night sweats
  • profound and unexplained fatigue
  • swollen lymph glands in the armpit, groin, or neck
  • prolonged diarrhea - lasting a week or more
  • white spots or unusual blemishes on the tongue, in the mouth, or in the throat

While new drug therapies and awareness campaigns have reduced infection rates from the roughly 150,000 per year in the early 1980's to about 40,000 per year currently, HIV/AIDS is poised to re-emerge if sexually active people do not remain vigilant.

According to the CDC, approximately 650,000 - 900,000 Americans are living with HIV.  This wide range of cases illuminates the dangerous fact that as many as 40% of Americans don't know they have HIV until just before they develop AIDS.

And much of the problem is the HIV virus is literally hiding inside people.

Hide and seek

"The search for new drugs has focused primarily on attempts to inhibit viral replication," says Michael Scolaro, medical director and founder of Let Their Be Hope Medical Research Institute which specializes in HIV/AIDS. "We're moving to the next era of treatment approaches that will address the sanctuary tissues and cells of the lymph nodes and lymphoid organs which are largely safe from the oral antiviral medications."

Scolaro says that sanctuary tissues allow the HIV virus to remain either dormant or more ominously - safe from the anti-viral treatments.

"We can obtain negative viral loads so that there appears to be no virus when we take a sample of blood," explains Scolaro, who is also a clinical associate professor at USC Keck School of Medicine. "However, if we stop treatment, within a matter of weeks huge amounts of virus can be again detected in the blood. So we know there is a source of re-supply and it is coming from the sanctuaries."

By targeting the sanctuaries where HIV hides, it is believed that anti-viral treatments can be more effective in eliminating the virus completely and perhaps freeing patients from a lifetime of taking medications.

"The medications that will attempt to reach those sanctuaries may be the very drugs that are currently being used but delivered right now only orally," Scolaro notes.

In the meantime, the first member of a new class of HIV/AIDS drugs called fuzeon appears to be quite effective. Fuzeon is a fusion inhibitor and works by preventing HIV from infiltrating the immune-system cells they destroy. Given as a subcutaneous injection twice daily in combination with other HIV treatments, the biggest drawback is fuzeon's extremely high cost per dose.  Annual treatment costs are estimated at over $20,000.

But hope continues to build throughout the scientific and medical communities that a vaccine and a cure will be found for the disease that has claimed over 440,000 American lives since it was formally identified over 20 years ago.

"One of these days someone is going to come up with the 'Ah ha' factor," Moreno says. "And hopefully that will be sooner rather than later because so many people have been affected by this disease. It's time to put at end to it."

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 6/2/2003  -  John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 6/2/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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