HIV Treatment Should Be Started Earlier: WHO
July 1, 2013

Earlier HIV Treatment Could Save Three Million Lives, WHO Claims

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

By administering AIDS drugs to patients with HIV closer to their initial diagnoses, doctors could save three million additional lives over the next 12 years, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said on Sunday.

In new guidelines designed to help control and ultimately reduce the spread of the immunodeficiency virus, the UN health agency said as many as 80 percent of all HIV-positive men and women - an estimated 26 million people - should be receiving drug treatments, according to Reuters reporter Kate Kelland.

"While better access to cheap generic AIDS drugs means many more people are now getting treatment, health workers, particularly in poor countries with limited health budgets, currently tend to wait until the infection has progressed," Kelland said.

The WHOs new policy, however, will "set a global standard" for when HIV patients should begin receiving antiretroviral treatments, and was created "after numerous studies found that treating HIV patients earlier can keep them healthy for many years and also lowers the amount of virus in the blood, significantly cutting their risk of infecting someone else," she added.

The organization admitted that the new treatment guidelines, which were announced as part of an international AIDS conference being held in Kuala Lumpur, would add 10 percent to the approximately $23 billion cost of treating HIV and AIDS in developing nations, BBC News Health Correspondent Jane Dreaper said. However, the WHO believes donors and the afflicted countries themselves will recognize that the new plan will be more cost-effective in the long term.

Currently, approximately 34 million people throughout the world have HIV, the AIDS-causing virus which attacks the essential infection-fighting part of the immune system known as T-cells, the Associated Press (AP) explained. In order for a person to be officially diagnosed as having AIDS, his or her T-cell count must drop to at least 200 per cubic millimeter of blood.

Previously, the WHO advised countries to begin administering antiretroviral drugs to people whose T-cell counts fell to 350 per cubic millimeter of blood. However, according to the AP, the new recommendations suggest treatment should begin when those immune cells drop below 500. In addition, children under the age of five, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, people whose partners are uninfected and those with tuberculosis or hepatitis B should be given AIDS drugs as soon as they are diagnosed as HIV positive.

The policy changes can help "bring the epidemic to an irreversible decline," Meg Doherty, who serves as coordinator of treatment and care in the WHO's HIV/AIDS department, told Bloomberg during a briefing in Geneva on Sunday. In the US, it is currently recommended that HIV patients be treated as soon as they are diagnosed, but Doherty told reporters there was not enough evidence to support such a policy on a global scale.

In related news, a study presented as part of the same international AIDS conference revealed that last year a total of $1.31 billion was invested in research and development in six key areas linked to the battle against the AIDS epidemic - HIV vaccines, microbicides, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) using antiretroviral drugs, treatment as prevention, operations research related to voluntary medical male circumcision and prevention of vertical transmission.

The US contributed a total of $925 million, or 70 percent of the total public sector funding of HIV prevention research, the "From Research to Reality: Investing in HIV Prevention Research in a Challenging Environment" report revealed. The overall funding of all six areas increased by six percent over 2011, though the study authors claim "a significant portion of this increase is likely due to improved reporting by several donors."