In what is being hailed as a landmark study by researchers and activists, the National Institutes of Health found that giving HIV-positive patients pills to combat the disease soon after they are infected cut the risk of passing the virus onto uninfected partners by 96 percent.
The findings were considered so dramatic, that the study was ended four years earlier than it's scheduled completion in 2015. In other words: it was so effective, that according to the Economist "it was considered immoral to keep on denying treatment to those in the control arm, who were acting as a benchmark against which the approach could be judged."Previously, some doctors counseled patients to only being treatment for HIV when their immune systems had weakened significantly, or they developed an AIDS-related illness. And some patients want to avoid the reported side effects of HIV medication.
But the results are expected to reignite calls for widespread access to antiretroviral pills at home and abroad, in the hopes of further controlling the spread of the deadly disease.
Antiretroviral therapy, though expensive, is widely available in the developing world. However cuts to federal programs designed to provide drugs to the needy and uninsured have forced some states to institute waiting lists for the life-saving drugs. And their price tag puts them well out of reach of most HIV-positive people in the developing world. The BBC reports:
"International donors cannot ignore the evidence any longer: HIV treatment is a very powerful form of HIV prevention, and could have a major effect on the HIV epidemic in the worst-affected countries. What we need now is a renewed commitment to HIV treatment, and studies to show how to get the maximum benefit out of this breakthrough at country level."
The study looked at 1,763 heterosexual couples in 9 countries, in which one partner was infected with HIV and one was not. In half of the couples, which were chosen at random, the infected partner was put on antiretroviral treatment as soon as they were infected. The other half did not begin treatment until the immune system had deteriorated to a certain level.
In the group that waited to begin treatment, 27 of the uninfected partners eventually contracted HIV. In the group that began treatment immediately, only 1 uninfected partner got the disease.