(HealthDay News) -- Providing early antiretroviral drug treatment for recently infected HIV patients and their uninfected sexual partners is a cost-effective way to help patients stay healthy and prevent transmission of HIV, a new study finds.
The study, published Oct. 31 in the New England Journal of Medicine, looked at HIV patients in India and South Africa. Some of the patients received early antiretroviral therapy while the start of treatment was delayed for other patients. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.
During the first five years of the study, 93 percent of those who received early antiretroviral therapy survived, compared with 83 percent of those whose treatment was delayed. Life expectancy was nearly 16 years for those in the early treatment group, compared with nearly 14 years for those in the delayed treatment group.
During the first five years, the potential costs of infections -- particularly tuberculosis-- prevented by early treatment of HIV patients in South Africa outweighed the costs of antiretroviral therapy drugs, suggesting that the early treatment strategy would reduce overall costs.
This was not the case in India, where the costs of treating HIV-related infections are less. Even so, early antiretroviral therapy in India was projected to be cost-effective according to established standards, the researchers said.
They also found that across patients' lifetimes, early antiretroviral therapy was very cost-effective in both countries. While most of the benefits of early treatment were seen in the HIV-infected patients -- fewer illnesses and deaths -- there were also added health care and economic cost savings from reducing HIV transmission, according to the study.
"By demonstrating that early HIV therapy not only has long-term clinical benefits to individuals but also provides excellent economic value in both low- and middle-income countries, this study provides a critical answer to an urgent policy question," study corresponding author Dr. Rochelle Walensky, of the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Infectious Disease, said in a hospital news release.
"HIV-infected patients live healthier lives, their partners are protected from HIV, and the investment is superb," she added.
Walensky, a professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, said the findings point to a need to "redouble international efforts" to provide early antiretroviral therapy to any HIV-infected person who can benefit from it.
Her colleague, Dr. Kenneth Freedberg, director of the Medical Practice Evaluation Center at Massachusetts General, agreed.
"Some people have questioned whether providing early [antiretroviral therapy] to all who need it would be feasible in resource-limited countries," he said in the news release. "We've shown that in countries like South Africa, where it actually saves money in the short-term, the answer is 'yes.' We believe that continued international public and private partnerships can make this true in other countries as well."
Freedberg said such an investment could bring about dramatic decreases in infections and illness that could save millions of lives over the next decade.
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By Robert Preidt