Sunday, August 21, 2011

When to start antiviral therapy

 Guidelines for starting antiviral therapy have been proposed by panels of experts from several groups including the DHHS and IAS-USA. They recommend treating all patients who have symptoms and those who have CD4 cell counts of less than 350 cells per mm3. Recent data supporting even earlier initiation of therapy includes analyses of groups of patients followed over time. Although the data is imperfect, a recent study showed that those who started treatment with CD4 cells greater than 500 cells per mm3 actually were less likely to die than those who did not start treatment until their CD4 cells declined to less than 500 cells/mm3. In addition, there is increasing evidence that ongoing viral replication, even in the setting of high CD4 cells may be associated with damage to the brain, kidneys, heart, and possibly even liver. Along with these studies arguing for earlier treatment, there is growing evidence that currently used treatments are usually very well tolerated and effective in suppressing viral load. Guidelines will continue to change with time, but for now, the emphasis should be on discussing all of the potential benefits and risks of therapy and deciding when is best for each individual. Regardless, all agree that HIV is generally a slowly progressive disease, and therapy rarely needs to be started abruptly. Therefore, there usually is time for each patient to carefully consider options prior to starting treatment.

Before starting treatment, patients must be aware of the short- and long-term side effects of the drugs, including the fact that some long-term complications may not be known. Patients also need to realize that therapy is a long-term commitment and requires consistent adherence to the drugs. In addition, clinicians and patients should recognize that depression, feelings of isolation, substance abuse, and side effects of the antiviral drugs can all be associated with the failure to follow the treatment program.

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