Early HIV Treatment Slashes Odds of Transmission

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Doctors and activists around the world are reacting today to big news on the AIDS front. Results of a landmark study released yesterday showed there's a powerful way to slow the spread of the AIDS virus. If people with HIV are put on treatment early, long before they show signs of illness, they're far less likely to transmit the virus to their sexual partners. At least that's the case for heterosexual couples. But putting this idea into practice won't be so easy in many parts of the world. Aditi Sharma is an activist with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition. She monitors the availability of AIDS treatment worldwide. Ms. Sharma, from your standpoint how significant is this new study, first of all?

Aditi Sharma: This is a groundbreaking study and as activists we are celebrating. Science has finally spoken out loud and clear, and it's time now for our political leaders to deliver, both in the North and the South, an effective and comprehensive AIDS response and put to bed the pointless debates on prevention versus treatment.

Werman: And briefly describe what that argument is between prevention and treatment Ms. Sharma?

Sharma: Well many, especially in the donor community and in governments and others have argued that we're spending far too much on treatment and we need to spend more on prevention. And activists have long said that prevention and treatment are two sides of the same coin. Without an option for treatment, less people are likely to want to get tested and to know their status and which weakens our prevention efforts. And here is, finally, Science speaking out loudly to say treatment is prevention and it adds to the toolbox of prevention methods.

Werman: Well the epicenter of the epidemic is Sub-Saharan Africa. So let's look at what this study might mean for that part of the world. The study suggests that pretty much everyone with HIV should go on anti-retroviral drugs as soon as they test positive. And yet, in Africa there aren't enough drugs or enough health care workers to treat everyone who is already sick from HIV. So, how realistic is it to think that millions of more people could be put on treatment before they become ill?

Sharma: Well at the start of the previous decade, we had skeptics then saying that there wasn't a case for putting people on anti-retroviral treatment because the health systems were weak, because Africans could not tell time accurately. But time and again the AIDS movement has proved these skeptics wrong. If we invest in saving lives and you're providing HIV treatment and keeping HIV positive people alive, and now seeing treatment as an important tool in the prevention toolbox, we need to invest alongside in building up health systems, in motivating and training health workers. But one cannot be used as an excuse to cut back and retreat from the fight against AIDS.

Werman: Fair enough, but we're talking about vastly increasing the number of people on AIDS drugs, drugs they have to stay on for life. And this comes, the study comes at a time when global funding for HIV treatment has leveled off, so if costs go up by billions of dollars, where will that money come from?

Sharma: That's exactly the point that the study comes at a time when donors and governments in the South are retreating from AIDS. But this makes a case that we have the science to treat people but also to prevent new infections. And I think it's a case of showing that investment in HIV is effective and will work and will deliver results.

Werman: Well let me ask you about another practical obstacle that may stand in the way of life's right implementation of the treatment as prevention strategy in Africa. To treat, you first have to know who is infected so, won't there have to be stepped up HIV testing as well?

Sharma: Yes, we need stepped up HIV testing. But, for far too long health has not been a priority for our governments and this is the time to scale up our investment in health across the board on maternal and child health, on stronger health systems, on paying health workers a fair wage and on scaling up access to treatment and prevention in HIV.

Werman: Aditi Sharma is with the International Treatment Preparedness Coalition. She spoke to us from Brighton, England. Ms. Sharma thanks very much.

Sharma: Thank you.