The World Health Organization has issued new guidelines for couples in which one partner is HIV positive and the other is not. The guidelines for so-called “discordant” couples are being praised by UNAIDS, Doctors Without Borders and others.
The WHO recommends giving antiretroviral treatment to HIV-positive partners, even if their immune systems are still healthy. Studies have shown that such treatment can prevent the transmission of HIV to their uninfected partners.
Dr. Bernhard Schwartlander of UNAIDS calls it a new era of hope, more than 30 years into the epidemic.
“I’ve been with AIDS since very beginning and I have seen many of my close, personal friends die because we had nothing in our hands that we could give them. I’ve seen many of my friends become infected before they really knew that it was out there so they couldn’t do much about it. With the recent development I think we have now really many tools in our hands which empower people with HIV. We can empower those who cannot escape risk to protect themselves, to protect their partners from HIV,” he said.
It also allows for better communication. Often HIV-positive people are afraid to discuss their status with their uninfected partners. Using treatment as prevention, he said, allows infected partners to regain their dignity.
Schwartlander, UNAIDS director of the Evidence, Strategy and Results Department, said the new WHO guidelines can save lives.
“We are very happy that these guidelines have been announced. They respond to the scientific evidence that has been accumulated over the past year that the person living with HIV, if that person receives ARVs, then the chance that the person would pass on the virus to a partner is dramatically reduced, which of course is a very, very important finding,” he said.
Schwartlander spoke from Nairobi, Kenya. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to most of the people living with HIV/AIDS and it’s where most of the HIV/AIDS deaths have occurred.
“About half of all people living with HIV who live in a regular partnership have a partner who’s not of the same status - a partner who is HIV negative, both for men and for women,” he said.
The UNAIDS official acknowledged the call for more widespread treatment comes during a time of budget cutbacks. However, he says everyone currently infected will eventually need treatment. Treating people before their immune system collapses, he said, will prevent many opportunistic infections and save money in the long run.
The World Health Organization guidelines are also being praised by the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders. It calls them a major advance that puts the world on the road to reversing the epidemic.