|AZT - antiretrovirals|
Individuals diagnosed with HIV are presented with a life-shattering possibility – transmission of the eventually lethal virus to their spouse/partner. Condom use and abstinence have been the recommended prevention methods, but on May 12, 2011, researchers announced startling findings that may aid in preventing transmission further. The antiretroviral drugs HIV-positive patients take to stave off AIDS may actually prevent them from infecting their partners.
The 73 million dollar study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted in nine countries, mainly in Africa, where the majority of AIDS cases are found (only two American couples took part, presumably due to the possibility of not receiving treatment until later in the study). As summarized by the LATimes, the current results on transmission to partners among more than 1700 couples were released four years before the study is even supposed to end due to their outstanding nature. The researchers found that antiretroviral treatment reduced the transmission of the virus 96%. Twenty-seven of 28 new infections occurred among couples who were not treated until their CD4 T cell count reached 350 compared to one case of infection among couples treated when the count fell below 500. The results indicate that new guidelines to treat HIV infection earlier, when the CD4 count drops below 500 rather than 350 as previously recommended, are beneficial.
The Wall Street Journal estimates that the study results may add fuel to the treatment versus prevention debate for funding in AIDS research, as the two aspects now clearly overlap. Increasing the number of individuals who are treated decreases the overall community viral load, resulting in decreased transmission overall in addition to reduced transmission among partners of HIV-positive patients. In addition, it should put pressure on companies to make the drugs less of a financial burden, ensuring that those who need treatment can seek it, especially amid current under-treatment – according to the Journal, only a third of those who required treatment in 2009 received it. As noted in the LATimes, the drugs used in the study were provided free of charge by the pharmaceutical companies that made them. The cost would normally be in the hundreds of dollars per year in developing countries, and they have not traditionally been affordable according to the AIDS charity AVERT.
The researchers also found that the earlier treatment benefitted the HIV patients by reducing the incidence of disseminated tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is one of the primary causes of death among HIV-infected individuals.
The study began in 2005 and researchers will continue following the couples for another year to ensure the results hold up over time. Experts quoted in news reports remind people that more than one prevention method increases the chances of actually preventing transmission, so condom use should still be emphasized if receiving antiretroviral treatment.