Steve in the L.A. Daily News!

By Eric Wahlgren, Daily News
Feb. 28, 1997

Sure that he would die of AIDS soon, Steve Schalchlin blazed through the writing of a musical in early 1996 and then took a long cruise to Alaska.

Shortly after the songwriter returned home to North Hollywood, the virus that causes AIDS launched an all-out attack, pushing the 43-year-old closer to death than ever before.

But just as his friends and family began preparing to say their final goodbyes, Schalchlin started combining existing anti-AIDS drugs with new ones called protease inhibitors.

It was the same mix of old and new drugs that the federal government largely credited Thursday with a 13 percent decline in AIDS deaths during the first half of 1996 -- the first marked decline in the epidemic's 16-year history.

And like the countless others using these drugs, Schalchlin reports that his health has bounced back remarkably, causing what he called a "quantum change" in his outlook on life.

"Everything I was doing before, I felt I had to do it, and that it would be the last time," said Schalchlin, who was first diagnosed four years ago with an infection from the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV.

"So now I am feeling a mixture of elation because I have my life now," he said. "But I also have gotten back a little of that anxiety that comes with the question: What am I going to do with the rest of my life?"

The national mortality figures released Thursday are mirrored in Los Angeles County, where the decline in deaths due to AIDS has dropped significantly.

Between 1995 and 1996, the number of AIDS deaths countywide dropped by 746 or 28 percent -- from 2,640 to 1,894.

"We have seen the same thing here in the county as we have seen across California and across the nation," said Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of the county's HIV Epidemiology Program. "There has been a dramatic reduction in deaths."

Good news, to be sure. But AIDS experts also agree that they must do a better job of reaching all people because AIDS deaths nationally among African-Americans fell by only 2 percent and by only 10 percent among Latinos, compared with 21 percent among whites.

The CDC also announced that although the number of Americans diagnosed with AIDS continues to increase, the rate of growth is decreasing. The number of people newly diagnosed with AIDS rose less than 2 percent between 1994 and 1995, from an estimated 61,200 to 62,200, as compared with a 5 percent increase the previous year.

But AIDS experts tempered the good news, saying that the new drugs are costly and do not work for everyone.

Protease inhibitors, when used with such existing drugs as AZT, can defeat the HIV's ability to reproduce and thereby prolong life, perhaps even giving people with AIDS a shot at a normal life span.

The cost is high, however.

Taking pills as many as five times a day can ring up to $15,000 a year. Federal and state governments help people pay for the new medications, but the city's AIDS coordinator said not enough funds exist for all those who need them.

"The federal funds needed to underwrite the cost of these medicines are at the very least, a political impossibility," said Ferd Eggan, the city AIDS coordinator.

Furthermore, some people can't take the drugs because of the side effects and the medication can lose much of its effect if people fail to take them consistently.

"The (virus) will develop a resistance to the drugs if they take them only sporadically," said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the city's largest community-based provider of medical care for people with AIDS.

The declining AIDS mortality rate is changing the nature of the health care, as hospices close and hospitals find less demand from seriously ill people.

"Our focus has moved more and more to the outpatient treatment of HIV as a chronic, manageable illness," Weinstein said.

Copyright 1997 Daily News Los Angeles