AIDS experts have found that treating HIV patients with several medications at once can effectively manage most cases of the disease. Past research has shown that a three-drug combination is more effective than a two-drug regimen at managing the disease. So are four drugs even better? Not according to a new study.
HIV patient Jim Shea got the disease almost two decades ago. He used to take up to 20 pills a day.
"Three, four, five times a day you'd have to remember to take meds [medications], so in those days it was extremely difficult," said Jim Shea. "It was a full-time job just to stay on the medications."
Because of medical advances, HIV patients now generally take only three drugs. Cornell University physician Roy Gulick says the triple combination works well.
"People can suppress their viral load levels, that is the level of HIV in their blood," said Roy Gulick. "They can increase their T-cell counts, which is an important cell in the immune system. But the question is, could we do better?"
To answer that question, Gulick and colleagues compared treatment results in 765 newly infected patients, half of whom took a three-drug regimen while the rest took a four-drug combination in three pills.
"The good news overall, was that all patients did well," he said. "In fact, more than 80 percent of patients in the study suppressed their levels of HIV in the blood for as long as three years."
But were more drugs better when it came to treating HIV? Gulick says no.
"What we've concluded is that the three-drug regimens that we have today for HIV are pretty good, that it's actually hard to improve over the standard drugs that we have today," noted Gulick.
The results of the study appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association and were unveiled at the International AIDS conference in Toronto, Canada.
HIV patient Jim Shea says the study findings are good news because fewer drugs mean fewer side effects and more convenience. But he worries that the simpler drug regimen is causing some infected people to underestimate the seriousness of the disease.
"The disease and the complications of the disease are being lost in the shuffle because people think, ' Oh, all I have to do is take two or three pills a day and I'm going to live this happy lifestyle and everything is going to be fine.' That's just not true," he said.
Shea says no pills or medications can lessen the importance of HIV prevention.