HOUSTON, May 31 (Xinhua) -- In the heart of Texas, a state associated with cowboys and Western-style machismo, HIV/AIDS was a disease almost no one talked about -- except for the homosexual male community that then seemed to be the disease's target population -- at the beginning of the outbreak in the early 1980s.
That has changed, primarily due to the broadly different range of lifestyles of people with HIV/AIDS, and especially because of medical technological advances that have switched the HIV/AIDS diagnosis from an automatic death sentence to simple changes in the medical regimen that produce much longer life spans, a U.S. expert told Xinhua in a recent interview.
"When our agency started in 1982, you got the disease, you developed the disease and you died," said Nike Blue, director of programs for AIDS Foundation Houston, the first HIV/AIDS organization in Texas and the first to develop a pamphlet to spread awareness about the disease throughout the state.
HIV/AIDS was called "the gay virus," Blue said.
"While in the United States, we were mainly finding that it was gay men who had the disease, but AIDS was never a disease of one sexual orientation," Blue said.
"We knew it was transmitted mainly through anal sex without the use of condoms. But over the last 10 years we have noted that communities of this disease has shifted. It's not a disease where sexual behavior defines your risk or increases likelihood of contracting the disease."
The first people arrived at the foundation to take advantage of the AIDS Foundation Houston's housing for HIV/AIDS patients in the early 1980s were gay, homeless men.
"Our housing came about originally because people were getting kicked out of their homes," Blue said of the stigma associated with the disease. "They came to us as a last place before they died. Now our housing is not a place to come and die, but a place to come and survive."
Individual men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, now come to the foundation's housing primarily from communities of poverty.
"We try to stabilize their HIV through supporting them as they are going to the doctor's office, taking their medications," Blue said.
"Gay men are still acquiring this disease at high rates, but communities are living with AIDS where they have a lack of access to health care and basic medical care, plus a lack of educational achievement and lack of transportation in these communities."
Major advances in the care of patients with HIV, the immune system infection that was once a first step to developing full-blown AIDS, has been busy in the past five years, Blue said.
"We now have patients with a virtually undetectable viral load -- a load so small that chances of transmitting HIV to a partner is very, very low," Blue said.
"We have medications that affect HIV transmission rates. While there are still pockets of AIDS due to poverty -- the epidemic is still moving and growing bigger -- the person who goes to doctor and takes their medication can live a long and prosperous life."
The drug Atripla is now frequently prescribed for people who are newly diagnosed with HIV, Blue said, and greatly reduces the risk of the disease progressing to full-blown AIDS.
Another medication, Truvada, can be taken by HIV negative partners of people who are HIV positive and it serves as a preparation drug that reduces their risk of getting HIV.
"Those are just two huge biomedical advancements," Blue said. "Back in the '80s, people with HIV/AIDS took 30-something pills a day. Now people can take a couple of pills, check with their doctor and worry a lot less."
Despite advancements, she said that medical technology is still a long way from a cure for HIV/AIDS.
"A lot is being done toward finding a cure, but the type of vaccine that will cure HIV or AIDS is still a long way off," Blue said.
"Right now, the best thing people with HIV/AIDS can do is to take Travada and follow the protocol that is given from their doctors. That's the very big thing that we have."