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No longer a 'death sentence'

  • Robert Kavanagh is a case manager for Face to Face in Santa Rosa. ((Kent Porter / Press Democrat))

Lovers, brothers and sons. They were dying by the week just two decades ago as the AIDS epidemic swept Sonoma County.

AIDS, first identified in the United States in 1981, was unsparing. In 1990 in Sonoma County, the disease killed 106 people -- virtually all gay men -- a death rate of two a week.

"It was devastation," said Robert Kavanagh of Santa Rosa, who was diagnosed in 1995 with HIV, the virus that causes the illness.

Today, the landscape of HIV/AIDS has changed significantly. Refined treatment methods and the arrival of new medications have transformed what was a terminal diagnosis into one that far more often augurs a chronic illness.

"It was a death sentence," said David Coppini, 55, of Petaluma, who was diagnosed in 1987.

After years of "having drugs thrown" at him, and having developed resistance to them all, he was near death as recently as five years ago, he said.

Then, new medications saved his life.

Now, said the Penngrove native, "I'm really proud of myself for being a longterm survivor and productive." He has just become certified to provide HIV testing.

The data tell a striking story of despair turning into hope, to the point where those with the illness are commonly referred to as "people living with HIV or AIDS" rather than "victims."

From 1981 through 2010, 2,141 confirmed cases of AIDS were diagnosed in the county. Of those, more than half, or 1,198, have died, according to county Department of Health Services statistics.

But of the 1,198 deaths, 1,025 -- or 85 percent -- took place before 2000, indicating the degree to which the death rate has slowed.

In the past 12 years, just 173 confirmed AIDS deaths have taken place in the county.

Compare that with 106 AIDS-related deaths in 1995 alone. That was the year protease inhibitors became available, the first drugs found to effectively treat HIV.

In 2000, deaths had fallen to 27. In 2005, there were 22. In 2010, there were 10.

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