A recent study shows that early treatment for HIV results in a significant decrease in early illness and death.
"It's just more scientific evidence to back what we've been saying for a time now," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health which funded the trial.
The study involved more than 4,600 HIV-infected men and women in 35 countries who had HIV but were never treated for it. HIV attacks CD4 T-cells (immune system cells), and the lower a patient s CD4 T-cell count, the more likely he or she will then develop AIDS. Half of the study patients started taking antiretroviral drugs when their CD4 count was still 500 cells or above per cubic millimeter of blood. The other half waited until their CD4 count was about 350 to 400 cells/mmÂ³.
After a follow-up time of about three years, those who waited to take the drugs were 53 percent more likely to develop AIDS related cancers or infections, as well as non-AIDS related conditions such as heart disease or kidney disease. The study was initially meant to last until 2016, but the researchers ended it due to overwhelming evidence that HIV patients benefitted from early treatment with antiretroviral drugs.
The British HIV Association (BHIVA) is expected to update its guidelines following the study results. Currently in the UK and most other countries in Europe, treatment is delayed, although it is given immediately in the United States. The guidelines, however, were based on expert opinion, without evidence from a study. Dr. Adrian Palfreeman, vice-chair of BHIVA, called the study results critical information and said it would massively affect their upcoming review of guidelines for antiretroviral treatment.
The benefit of early treatment is yet another incentive for people who are unsure if they are infected to get tested for HIV. Palfreeman explains: One in four people [in the UK] with HIV do not know they are infected, and it may be deterring people from being tested if they feel like treatment will not start anyway, even if they do go to their doctor. Now we can say to people, [Y]ou will start treatment as soon as you know your HIV status. (In the US, it has been estimated that at least one in seven HIV-positive people are unaware of their status; some estimates range up to one in four).