AIDS drug cocktails halve new HIV cases in study

VIENNA, (Reuters) – Treating HIV patients with   cocktails of AIDS drugs helps to stop them spreading the  infection further and more than halved the number of new HIV  diagnoses in a study in Canada, scientists said yesterday.

The findings show that treating those with HIV can not only  help them live longer with the often fatal and incurable disease  but can also be a powerful way of limiting the virus’ spread.

Researchers found that since the introduction of a treatment  plan called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) for HIV  patients in the Canadian province of British Columbia in 1996,  the number of new HIV diagnoses has fallen by 52 percent.

Their study also found that rates of other sexually  transmitted diseases went up, suggesting that it was the AIDS  drugs and not other confounding factors such as condom use or  less sexual activity, that produced a fall in HIV infections.

The results show that for every 100 patients placed on HAART  new HIV diagnoses fell by 3 percent, suggesting that this type  of treatment could significantly reduce the spread of the human  immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

Experts commenting on the findings, which were reported at  an international AIDS conference in Vienna on Sunday and in the  Lancet journal, said they should be used to shape future  treatment plans.

“Experiences such as those reported today should be strongly considered by clinicians, national and international agencies, (and) policymakers,” said Franco Maggiolo and Sebastiano Leone  of the Division of Infectious Diseases, Ospedali Riuniti in  Italy, in a commentary in the Lancet. “HAART might play an  important part in the future control of the HIV epidemic.”

The AIDS virus infects 33.4 million people around the world  and has killed 25 million since the pandemic began in the 1980s.  There is no cure and no vaccine but drugs can keep patients  healthy. Without treatment, the virus destroys the immune  system, leaving patients susceptible to infections and cancer.

More than 20 drugs are now on the market and can be combined  in various ways to control HIV, although it usually mutates  eventually and patients must switch to different combinations to  keep it under control. Drugmakers include Gilead,  GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Merck & Co, Bristol-Myers Squibb and  Abbott Laboratories.

The Canadian team, led by Julio Montaner at the British  Columbia Centre for Excellence in Vancouver, analysed data on  HAART and looked at viral load of HIV patients — the level of  virus in their bodies — and at new HIV diagnoses in the  province, where residents get free HIV care.

HAART involves treatment with three or more AIDS drugs,  which can be either more expensive branded medicines or cheaper  generics, which are available at knocked-down prices in poorer  countries.

During three distinct time periods, researchers saw that the  number of people receiving HAART had a strong impact on viral  load and new diagnoses. As HAART coverage increased sharply, new  HIV diagnoses decreased sharply, and as HAART coverage  stabilised, so did viral load and new HIV diagnoses.

“Our results show a strong and significant association  between increased HAART coverage, reduced community viral load,  and decreased number of new HIV diagnoses,” Montaner said.

The annual number of new HIV infections around the world was  2.7 million in 2008, the same as in the previous year. This was  down from 3 million in 2001.

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