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WHO ramps up HIV action

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The number of people eligible for HIV therapies has dramatically expanded following the release of updated treatment guidelines by the World Health Organisation.

In a move hailed by medical organisations as a major advance in tackling the disease and preventing its spread, the WHO has brought forwarded the recommended window to begin anti-retroviral therapy, upgraded protocols to prevent transmission between mother and child, and urged more frequent monitoring of those undergoing treatment.

Despite medical advances, HIV/AIDS remains a major global scourge, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

In its recent snapshot of world health, the WHO reported around 34 million people are currently living with HIV – 70 per cent of them in sub-Saharan Africa – and there were 2.5 million new cases in 2011.

But, while the problem remains huge, there is mounting evidence that progress is being made in treating the disease.

In 2011, 1.7 million died from the condition – almost 25 per cent less than in 2005 – and the number of people with access to antiretroviral therapy is growing, reaching eight million people in low and middle income countries.

Medical humanitarian organisation Medicins Sans Frontieres said the revised WHO guidelines would help ensure people with HIV got the treatment they needed earlier than ever before, and improve management of the condition.

“Early HIV treatment makes a major difference – it keeps people healthier and also helps prevent the virus from spreading,” MSF President Dr Unni Karunakara said.

The humanitarian organisation said the move to viral load monitoring of those on anti-retrovirals was just as significant.

“There’s no greater motivating factor for people to stick to their HIV treatment than knowing the virus is undetectable in the blood,” said MSF’s Medical Coordinator in South Africa Dr Gilles van Cutsem. “Viral load testing is the optimal way of maintaining people on first-line treatment, and knowing when to switch them to second-line drugs, so it’s high time it’s made available in countries with a heavy burden of the disease.”

Dr Karunakara said the WHO’s new guidelines, released on 30 June, were ambitious but feasible, and he urged strong international support to see that they were followed.

“In places like the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Myanmar, it’s like the clock stopped over 10 years ago,” Dr van Cutsem said, “with shamefully high numbers of people dying because they cannot obtain treatment.”