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Deaths from AIDS falling rapidly in U.S.

The stunning turnaround in the war on AIDS has become even more obvious with the latest national statistics - deaths from the disease fell almost in half during the first half of last year.

The figures released Monday show that a smaller downturn in 1996 was no fluke. The decline in AIDS deaths is accelerating.Experts agree that the improvement is caused almost entirely by powerful combinations of medicines that first came into widespread use less than two years ago. Almost immediately, they changed AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic illness - at least for now.

Many quietly wonder, though, how long this will last. Will people who were rescued from what seemed like certain death continue to thrive? Or will the virus eventually find a way to elude the drugs that thwart it?

"Are we in a honeymoon period? Is there something bad on the horizon?" asked Dr. Harold Jaffe of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite his apprehension, nothing in the CDC's figures foretell even a hint of gloom. The news is stunningly good.

Deaths from AIDS peaked in 1994 and 1995, then nosed downward 21 percent in 1996. Last year, that fall accelerated.

The latest CDC figures show that 12,040 Americans died of AIDS in the first half of last year, down 44 percent from the 21,460 deaths in the first half of 1996.

Experts said this does not mean that AIDS is no longer a problem. The virus continues to spread, and between 400,000 and 650,000 Americans are infected. However, the disease is far different than it was even just three or four years ago.

"We can't see the end of the epidemic, but it's the beginning of a new era," said the CDC's Dr. Kevin DeCock.

Prescriptions of so-called three-drug cocktails - two older AIDS drugs plus one of the newer class of medicines called protease inhibitors - have revolutionized AIDS care. Typically people start on them as soon as they learn they are infected, even before they get sick.

When all goes well, these medicines drive the amount of virus in the bloodstream so low that it cannot be measured. Many who were deathly ill when the combination therapy came into widespread use two years ago are now in outwardly good health.

Still, the drugs fail for some, and the most common reason is that people stop taking the medicines. Patients must swallow 20 or so pills a day on a precise time schedule; missing even a few can allow mutant unkillable strains to emerge in the body.