Access to antiretrovirals unlikely to reduce HIV infection rates

A new study by Rebecca Baggaley, Neil Ferguson, and Geoff Garnett (of Imperial College London) suggests that the HIV epidemic in poor countries will not be controlled through antiretroviral drugs alone, even if universal access is achieved. As they demonstrate in an article in the open-access international medical journal PLoS Medicine, without additional prevention methods such as counseling patients and their communities about safe sex, access to drugs is likely to increase HIV/AIDS prevalence.

Sexual transmission of HIV is more likely if the HIV-positive partner has a higher viral load. Because antiretrovirals therapy (ART) slows AIDS progression and reduces viral load in infected individuals, the drugs not only improve the health and prolong the life of those who take them, but also make it less likely that they infect others. As a consequence, ART has been discussed not only as a treatment but also as a prevention tool in its own right.

To test this, Baggaley and colleagues used a model to predict and compare the impacts of alternative strategies of increasing ART access in resource-poor countries. Some of the strategies included the provision of diagnostic laboratories that could routinely measure CD4 counts and viral loads of HIV-infected individuals (only if this is done could people be treated before they develop overt symptoms). They also took into account different ways that people might change their sexual behavior if they get treatment (which might make them feel physically better and more likely to be sexually active) and counseling (which will hopefully increase safe sex practices).

They found that providing ART to all individuals with AIDS symptoms (i.e. those at the late stages of the disease) was likely to increase the prevalence of HIV infection, as these people live longer and become sexually active again. If ART is also provided to HIV-positive individuals at an earlier stage, i.e. when their immune system starts to get

Contact: Andrew Hyde
Public Library of Science

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