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ST. LOUIS ( -- The month of December is dedicated to bringing awareness to HIV/AIDS.

Both treatment and prevention for the HIV virus have dramatically progressed in the last 20 years, something that Dr. Rupa Patel with Washington University takes pride in, and a change St. Louis local Dave Rueschhoff counts on.

“When I first came out, the thought of getting HIV meant you were going to die,” said Rueschhoff. “That was the general consensus in the gay community at the time. I think we have come leaps and bounds in the last 10 to 20 years.”

World renowned physician Patel is helping make sure that progress continues. She leads the PrEP Program at the Washington University Infectious Disease Clinic.

“I think everyone should know about HIV, and that HIV is not a death sentence,” said Patel. “Now we have something that is the equivalent of taking an aspirin to prevent a heart attack. We have something you can take and the empowerment of yourself to decide if you want to take it to prevent getting the virus.”

Patel is talking about PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), a concept that includes people who are at very high risk for HIV taking daily medicine to lower their chances of getting infected. PrEP also requires a clinic visit once every three months and regular testing for STDs and HIV. According to the CDC, if used as prescribed, PrEP can reduce the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90 percent. For people who inject drugs, the CDC says PrEP reduces risk by 70 percent.

In addition to prevention, treatment for HIV has also dramatically progressed.

“Now the treatment is one pill once a day. It’s like a multi-vitamin, in the concept of multiple components in one pill and you take it every day,” said Dr. Patel.

Rueschhoff, one of Dr. Patel’s patient’s, said these medical advancements have been a game-changer.

“This is an additional layer of comfort and security in knowing the chances of getting HIV, even if you have sex with someone who is HIV positive, is relatively low,” said Rueschhoff.

While that peace of mind helps, it’s still not enough for either Rueschhoff or Dr. Patel.

“Here in the St. Louis area, each year we are making headway in decreasing the number of infections and identifying the number of people infected to bring them into care. But I think there is more room,” said Dr. Patel.

“My hope is one day there will be a cure for AIDS, a cure for HIV, a vaccine that will come out to prevent it all together,” said Rueschhoff.

That dream might not be so far off.

Right now, researchers in South Africa are launching the biggest HIV/AIDS vaccine trial.

While an FDA-approved vaccine in the U.S. is still years away, St. Louis is part of a trial for another preventative measure, a three-month injection.

“I think we have taken strong strides to identify the virus, we’ve had all these pills come out, then moved to one pill once a day. I think the game now is how do we lengthen the time the medications work so we don’t have to take one pill once a day,” said Dr. Patel.

An injection once every couple months could make prevention even easier because it takes out the human error of forgetting to take a pill once a day.

The prospect is exciting for people like Rueschhoff. He is now the co-chair of the community advisory board for the injection study in at Washington University in St. Louis and is helping look for 100 people to participate. They are planning their first outreach event in January.

Copyright 2016 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved

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