Earlier HIV treatment recommended in South Africa

Earlier treatment for HIV infection in South Africa could prevent nearly 76,000 deaths and avert 66,000 opportunistic infections over the next five years, U.S. researchers said on Monday, Reuters reported.

People in developed countries like the United States are treated with HIV drugs soon after diagnosis, typically when their immune system shows signs of failing.

Doctors measure this by counting the number of immune cells called CD4 T-cells in the blood. In developed countries, HIV treatment usually begins when CD4 numbers drop below 350.

Many developing countries follow 2006 World Health Organization standards, which call for treatment when CD4 drops below 200 or when people start to develop complications from AIDS.

"While those standards accommodate the limited resources and short supply of medications in many settings, the greater prevalence of tuberculosis and other opportunistic infections in places like South Africa argue for earlier treatment initiation," Dr. Rochelle Walensky of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, whose study appears in the Annals of Internal Medicine, said in a statement.

Walensky used a computer model to calculate the cost of waiting to give HIV drugs over the next five years. She found starting treatment earlier would not only save lives but would be more cost-effective than delaying treatment, saving $1,200 for every year of life saved.

A Canadian study last year found cocktails of HIV drugs can help patients live an average of 13 years longer -- if they are lucky enough to get them.

Nearly 3 million people in the developing world now get HIV drugs -- about 70 percent of those who need them, according to the United Nations.

Makers include GlaxoSmithKline , Gilead Sciences Inc , Roche , Pfizer , Merck Inc , Bristol-Myers Squibb and Abbott Laboratories .

AIDS is caused by the fatal and incurable human immunodeficiency virus and is transmitted mostly through sex. It has killed 25 million people since it was identified in the early 1980s and infects an estimated 33 million.

Most cases are in Africa, and most are transmitted during sex between a man and a woman.

But in some West African countries, HIV infection is 10 times more prevalent among men who have sex with men than in the general male population, British researchers have found.

A study reported in the Lancet medical journal by a team led by Dr. Adrian Smith of the University of Oxford suggests that the role of gay sex in the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS has been overlooked in Africa.

Smith's team found that stigma and prejudice may be keeping men in Africa from seeking treatment. Since many of these men also have sex with women, this may be putting many women at risk as well.

They called for more education and funding to fight HIV infection in this group.

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