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WHO Says Earlier HIV Drug Treatment Could Save Millions

Jul 01, 2013 08:41 PM EDT

HIV treatment should begin earlier, according to new guidelines guide lines issued by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to UN officials, the decision to change current recommendations springs from recent evidence indicating that earlier antiretroviral therapy (ART) will help people with HIV live longer, healthier lives and substantially reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

In all, the move could avert an additional 3 million deaths and prevent 3.5 million more new HIV infections between now and 2025, according to WHO.

"These guidelines represent another leap ahead in a trend of ever-higher goals and ever-greater achievements," WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said in a press release. "With nearly 10 million people now on antiretroviral therapy, we see that such prospects - unthinkable just a few years ago - can now fuel the momentum needed to push the HIV epidemic into irreversible decline."

Specifically, the new recommendations encourage all countries to initiate treatment in adults living with HIV when their CD4 cell count falls to 500 cells/mm³ or less - when their immune systems are still strong.

In contrast, the previous WHO recommendation, set in 2010, focus on beginning treatment at 350 CD4 cells/mm³ or less.

At this point, 90 percent of all countries have adopted the 2010 recommendation, according to WHO, while a handful of nations, such as Algeria, Argentina and Brazil, are already offering treatment at 500 cells/mm3.

WHO further added the recommendation of providing ART to all children with HIV less than 5 years of age, all pregnant and breastfeeding women with HIV and to all HIV-positive partners where one partner in the relationship is uninfected - irrespective of their CD4 count.

In addition, WHO recommends that nations offer all adults starting to take ART the daily single fixed-dose combination pill, which is easier to take and safer than alternative combinations previously recommended and can be used more widely, including pregnant women.

Finally, the Organization is further encouraging countries to enhance the ways they deliver HIV services, for example by linking them more closely with other health services.

The report notes that countries that integrate these changes will see significant benefits in regards to the health of their nation's people by keeping those infected healthier and lowering the amount of virus in their blood, which in turn reduces the risk of passing it to someone else.

"Advances like these allow children and pregnant women to access treatment earlier and more safely, and move us closer to our goal of an AIDS-free generation," said UNICEF Executive Director, Anthony Lake. "Now, we must accelerate our efforts, investing in innovations that allow us to test new born babies faster and giving them the appropriate treatment so that they enjoy the best possible start in life."

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