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Early Treatment for HIV Can Save Millions of Lives

  • Lisa Schlein

Anti-retroviral drug Tenofovir could cut the risk of HIV in half among injected drug users, (File photo).

Anti-retroviral drug Tenofovir could cut the risk of HIV in half among injected drug users, (File photo).

The World Health Organization says early treatment for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, can save millions of lives.

WHO is issuing new treatment guidelines for people infected with HIV as a major international AIDS Conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia gets under way.

The World Health Organization reports earlier antiretroviral therapy - ART - could avert an additional 3 million deaths and prevent 3.5 million more new HIV infections between now and 2025.

WHO says recent evidence indicates that treating people with HIV earlier, with safe, affordable and easier-to-manage medicines will help them live longer, healthier lives. Because the medication lowers the amount of virus in the blood, WHO says this will greatly reduce the risk of transmitting the HIV infection to others.

Use of lifesaving drugs on the rise

Coordinator of WHO’s HIV-AIDS Department, Gundo Weiler, says 9.7 million people were taking lifesaving antiretroviral drugs at the end of 2012, an amazing increase from the figure of 300,000 10 years ago. He says the increase in the use of ART drugs is making a huge impact on the lives of individuals and on the AIDS epidemic.

Weiler says, “Over the last decade, the scale-up of antiretroviral treatment in low and middle income countries has averted more than four million deaths-4.2 million deaths exactly-and also, it has averted more than 800,000 infections among children due to the prevention of mother and child transmission…Antiretroviral treatment is not only good for the health of the person who is taking the treatment, but it also reduces the likelihood of transmission. So, the scale-up of ART has an effect on the HIV epidemic together with all the other prevention efforts.”

WHO reports 32 million people are living with HIV and 1.7 million people died of AIDS-related causes in 2011. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest burden of HIV. WHO notes treatment coverage has increased in every region of the world, with Africa leading the way. It says four of five people in sub-Saharan Africa started treatment in 2012.

While progress is being made, United Nations health officials are concerned that some groups of people who need treatment are not getting it. It notes fewer children than adults are receiving ART, with only one in three children receiving them.

They say other groups susceptible to getting the disease, including injecting drug users, men who have sex with men, and sex workers have less access to antiretroviral therapy. They say it is important to reach these people who are stigmatized and excluded from services.

WHO steps up recommendations

The new WHO recommendations call for antiretroviral therapy to be provided to all children with HIV under five years of age, to pregnant and breastfeeding women with HIV, as well as to all HIV-positive partners where one partner in the relationship is uninfected.

Director of WHO's HIV-AIDS Department, Gottfried Hirnschall, says people starting treatment today have a much easier regimen to follow than in the past.

“Ten years ago, there were many tablets several times a day," says Hirnschall. "People started late when they got sick when they started. We are now at a single tablet, once a day, early in the infection. That is the new paradigm shift. It will keep people alive, healthy, for long periods of time and it will also prevent that people can transmit the infection to their partners, to whoever they engage sexually or through other means.”

Hirnschall says the price of HIV drugs for developing countries has been drastically reduced to an average of $140 per person per year. The same drug in wealthy countries, he says can run to $10,000 or more a year.

The U.N. health agency recommends a more integrated approach in the treatment of HIV. It says HIV services should be more closely linked with other health services, such as those for tuberculosis, maternal and child health, sexual and reproductive health, and treatment for drug dependence.
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