The World Health Organization has revised its HIV guidelines to recommend that anyone who tests positive for the virus be given antiretroviral drugs immediately, as part of the U.N. agency's aim to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
The new guideline is a significant departure from the U.N. agency's current recommendation that doctors wait to treat some people with HIV until their immune systems suggested they were getting sick.
An estimated 15 million people are currently on antiretroviral therapy (ART). The new recommendation would mean treatment for all 37 million people globally who are infected with the virus, a target the WHO hopes to reach by 2020.
Meg Doherty, coordinator for treatement and care for HIV-AIDS, told VOA that clinical trials show early use of antiretroviral therapy allows people with HIV to live longer, healthier lives, while reducing the risk of transmitting the virus to partners.
“We also believe that by starting more people earlier on therapy, we will have an opportunity to end AIDS by 2030. ... Ending a public health epidemic does not mean that there will be no evidence of the virus at all," Doherty said.
"But it will mean that there will be an ability to have fewer new infections ... and that there will be fewer and fewer people being infected over time," she added.
The WHO also recommends preventive ART be offered to all people at substantial risk of HIV, such as men who have sex with men, prostitutes, people with infected partners, intravenous drug users and others.
The health agency said the preventive therapy should be part of a comprehensive package of services, including HIV testing, counseling and support.
Offering antiretroviral treatment to millions more globally is a prospect that may be unrealistic in poor countries, where many patients are still unable to get medicines.
Doherty said it would cost $18.4 billion every year over the next five years to expand access to treatment services. But she said every dollar invested in HIV treatment would return $15 in improved health and fewer infections.
Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS, said by his agency's estimates, "expanding ART to all people living with HIV and expanding prevention choices can help avert 21 million AIDS-related deaths and 28 million new infections by 2030."
Since it began spreading 30 years ago, AIDS has killed about 40 million people worldwide.
Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.