Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — When it comes to treating HIV, the sooner, the better. That’s the latest from a large-scale National Institutes of Health study released Wednesday.
The study found that even patients in the early stages of HIV diagnosis, with relatively healthy immune systems, reduced their risk of death by more than half when put on antiretroviral drugs. Being put on medication when their immune systems were stronger also reduced patients’ risk of developing full-blown AIDS.
“We now have clear-cut proof that it is of significantly greater health benefit to an HIV-infected person to start antiretroviral therapy sooner rather than later,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at NIH.
Findings held true for participants around the globe, with investigators finding similar results in both low- and high-income countries.
Because of the new findings, the NIH is changing their HIV treatment recommendations.
“We now have strong evidence that early treatment is beneficial to the HIV-positive person. These results support treating everyone,” said Dr. Jens Lundgren of the University of Copenhagen, one of the co-chairs of the study.
The study overturns older thinking about HIV treatment, which was that the toxic side effects of antiretroviral drugs should be avoided until a patient’s immune system started to suffer.
Side effects for going on antiretroviral drugs can be severe, including bone death and heart disease — in addition to a lifetime of daily pill schedules. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV.
Taking antiretroviral drugs has also been proven to reduce risk of transmitting HIV to uninfected sexual partners. Based on these interim results, all of the study participants are being offered antiretroviral treatment if they’re not already on it. The international four-year study will continue until 2016.
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