Why Early HIV Treatment Matters

HIV patients who receive early antiretroviral treatment may have lower AIDS risk

(RxWiki News) There may be some good news for HIV patients — starting medication immediately after diagnosis may help keep patients healthy longer.

A new study found that HIV patients may have a lower risk of developing AIDS or other serious illnesses if they begin antiretroviral drug treatment early.

“This is an important milestone in HIV research,” said study co-chair Jens Lundgren, MD, of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, in a press release. “We now have strong evidence that early treatment is beneficial to the HIV-positive person."

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus spread through infected bodily fluids that affects the cells of the immune system. Over time, HIV may destroy so many cells that the body can’t fight off infections and disease. When this happens, an HIV patient may develop acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

AIDS is the final and most serious stage of HIV infection. Without treatment, patients who are diagnosed with AIDS typically survive about three years.

Unlike some other viruses, the body is not able to get rid of HIV. Once a person has HIV, he or she will most likely have it for life. No cure currently exists. HIV can be transmitted through sex, blood transfusions and contaminated needles.

A common treatment for HIV is antiretroviral therapy. These drugs can prolong the lives of HIV patients and lower their chances of infecting others.

Dr. Lundgren and team studied 4,685 HIV-infected adult men and women. All patients had a CD4+ (T-cell) count — a key measure of immune system health — that was considered in the normal range and had never been on antiretroviral therapy before.

About half of these patients were placed on antiretroviral drugs immediately. The other half were not placed on the drugs until their CD4+ cell count declined. On average, these patients were followed for three years.

Dr. Lundgren and team found that the risk of developing serious illness or dying was reduced by 53 percent in those who received early antiretroviral treatment — compared with those in the late-treatment group.

These results are part of the Strategic Timing of AntiRetroviral Treatment (START) study — an ongoing study that is expected to conclude in 2016. According to Dr. Lundgren and team, all patients in this study will be offered antiretroviral treatment if they are not already on it.

"These findings have global implications for the treatment of HIV,” said Anthony S. Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), in a press release.

The NIAID, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, funded this research. The authors disclosed no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
May 29, 2015