A ground-breaking study released yesterday by the US National Institutes of Health found that HIV-positive people receiving anti-retroviral treatment are 96 percent less likely to transmit HIV to their partners. This landmark study was carried out in nine different countries around the world and could change the way HIV patients are treated in the future.
The study observed over 1,700 couples of whom one partner was living with HIV with a CD4 count (white blood cells) between 350 and 550 and were not yet eligible for HIV treatment, according to WHO guidelines. The couples were divided into two groups. In the first group, treatment for the HIV positive individuals was delayed until there was evidence of a weakened immune system. In the second group, HIV positive individuals were started on treatment right away.
Those individuals started on treatment immediately decreased their risk of transmitting the virus to their uninfected partner by 96 percent. The findings were so overwhelming that the study was cut short 3-4 years ahead of schedule.
Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, said:
“This is a crucial development, because we know that sexual transmission accounts for about 80 per cent of all new infections. The findings from this study will further strengthen and support the new guidance that WHO is releasing in July to help people living with HIV protect their partners.”
These findings have significant implications for mobilising additional resources to fund HIV treatment around the world to provide HIV treatment to all those who need it. Furthermore, an increase in access to HIV testing is needed as only an estimated half of the 33 million people living with HIV are aware of their status. Earlier diagnoses of HIV would result in more people starting treatment earlier, thus reducing the chance of transmission to others.