People infected with HIV are better off if they get antiretroviral drugs right away, instead of waiting, which is the current practice, according to a new study.
The immediate treatment could help HIV patients spend less time on the powerful and costly drugs later.
Most HIV/AIDS patients don't get treated immediately after they become infected. Instead, the typical procedure is to wait until their CD4 immune cells reach a certain level or other symptoms develop.
But researchers at the University of Amsterdam suspected that starting a brief course of medicine as soon as the HIV infection was identified would prime the immune system, to give it a head start in fighting back the infection.
To find out, 168 newly-diagnosed HIV patients were assigned to one of three groups. One group got 24 weeks of antiretroviral drugs, another got 60 weeks of the medicine, and the third group got no treatment, which is the current standard of care.
Researcher Marlous Grijsen says those who got the drugs right away didn't suffer any significant side effects.
"The quality of life was not negatively influenced in the patients who were [treated early]. So, if you compare that to the patients who were not treated, the quality of life was not harmed," he said.
Then, the researchers waited until standard treatment guidelines said the patients should start antiretroviral treatment - based on a low CD4 count, for example, indicating that a patient’s immune system has been dangerously weakened.
Those who didn't get the medicine as soon as they were infected needed it about eight months later. Those in the two other groups were able to delay going back on the drugs for between one and two and a half years.
The early medication helped keep the virus in check.
"The patients who got early [treatment], they proved to have a better response against HIV," co-author Jan M. Prins says. "The amount of virus in the blood is lower in those patients who were treated early."
Prins adds that because those who start with a temporary course of antiretroviral drugs spend less total time on the medicine, their treatment is more cost-effective.