People who become infected with HIV should begin treatment for the virus even before they become very sick, new guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) now recommend. And some groups of people — children under the age of five, pregnant and breastfeeding women, people who already have tuberculosis or hepatitis B, and people whose partners are HIV-free — should receive drug treatment as soon as they’re diagnosed with the virus, WHO says.
WHO’s updated recommendations will ultimately increase the number of people on HIV drugs by more than 50 percent, from 16.8 million to about 26 million. According to the director of WHO’s HIV department, that would increase the total global spending on AIDS by about 10 percent. The global health experts say the extra $2.3 billion is worth it because early treatment is the best defense against the global HIV epidemic.
Sharonann Lynch, the HIV policy adviser at Doctors Without Borders, explained to the Associated Press that failing to ramp up treatment efforts will simply result in more infections and more deaths in the future. “It’s pay now or pay later,” Lynch pointed out.
Previous research has suggested that aggressively treating HIV-positive people with early rounds of drugs can “functionally cure” the virus in some cases. In March, U.S. doctors reported that they may have cured a two-year-old child of her HIV infection by immediately beginning treatment for the virus as soon as she was born. Later that month, French researchers hypothesized that strategy could also work for adults infected later in life.
Regardless of those extreme cases, early treatment has been proven to keep HIV-positive people healthier and effectively contain the spread of the virus. Scientists in the U.S. have already called for beginning treatment as soon as people become infected with HIV.
WHO’s new recommendations are likely to have a big impact on developing nations — particularly sub-Saharan Africa, the area that’s been hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now, only about 60 percent of the people who need HIV drugs are currently getting them. Under the updated guidelines, an additional nine million people in developing countries will become eligible for life-saving treatment. WHO estimates that three million lives could be saved in the next decade if every country started following the new guidelines for treatment.