People with HIV who take combination antiretroviral therapy (ART) can reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their HIV negative partners by 96 percent, a new study has found.

The results of the multi-country clinical trial, sponsored by the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID in the United States), are being hailed by researchers as a significant breakthrough in HIV prevention.

National Association of People Living with HIV/AIDS (NAPWA) Executive Director Jo Watson said the result would be a boot to people living with HIV.

“These findings add to the mounting evidence that HIV treatments significantly reduce the risk of passing on HIV,” Watson said.

“This is welcome news that will give positive people increased confidence and hope. It also adds to the demonstrated benefits of starting HIV treatments when it is appropriate for the individual to do so.

“The idea that HIV treatments could have an impact on the risk of HIV transmission is something that has been theorised for some time, and has been the subject of intense scientific debate in recent years.

“These findings add further weight to that theory and open up the prospect of new HIV prevention techniques that will benefit HIV-positive and HIV-negative people alike.”

While the HPTN 052 study findings will be welcomed by positive people, NAPWA has cautioned that safe sex practices need to be maintained for HIV positive and HIV negative individuals alike. HIV treatments are specifically for people living with HIV to best manage their own personal health, and Watson said NAPWA would continue to support other ongoing research about the potential benefits of treatments across diverse populations.

The study, conducted since 2005 at 13 sites in nine countries, recruited 1,763 couples, 97 percent of whom were heterosexual, in which one partner was HIV-positive at enrollment. None of the HIV-positive partners had taken ART, and their CD4 cell counts, a measure of the immune system’s health, were between 350 to 550.

Half the participants received immediate treatment, and the other half did not start [therapy] until their CD4 count dropped to 250 or they developed an AIDS-related symptom.

Analysis identified 39 new cases of HIV among the previously uninfected partners. In 28 of these cases, genetic analysis confirmed that one partner had infected the other. Of these 28 infections, 27 – or 96 percent – occurred among couples in which the HIV-infected partner did not start antiretroviral therapy immediately.

The couples were all counseled on safe sex practices, given free condoms and provided treatment for sexually transmitted infections.

“This new finding convincingly demonstrates that treating the infected individual – and doing so sooner rather than later – can have a major impact on reducing HIV transmission,” NIAID Director Anthony Fauci said in a statement.

Watson noted that the study was conducted in heterosexual couples and that further research will need to be done to confirm its applicability to gay men.

“Gay men still make up the vast majority of people living with HIV in Australia and we look forward to seeing further research focusing on this population,” she said.

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