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HIV and AIDS Treatment & Care

Information sourceInternet2013-01-25

HIV/AIDS Treatment and Care

People with HIV can live long and healthy lives with access to treatment. Since HIV was first reported substantial progress in the research and development of antiretroviral drugs has been made. There are now more than 20 approved antiretroviral drugs. Despite this, people with HIV face many barriers to accessing affordable, effective HIV treatment.

Taking HIV treatment requires effort and commitment as drugs must be taken at exact times each day. Some people may experience serious side-effects or may not respond to certain drugs. Treatment, care and support can help people to adhere to treatment and address any problems they may have with their treatment regimen.

This page points to comprehensive information about the antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV, what is involved when a person begins taking antiretroviral treatment and the global disparities in access to treatment.

What is HIV antiretroviral drug treatment?

This is the main type of treatment for HIV or AIDS. It is not a cure, but it can stop people from becoming ill for many years. The treatment consists of drugs that have to be taken every day for the rest of a person’s life.

The aim of antiretroviral treatment is to keep the amount of HIV in the body at a low level. This stops any weakening of the immune system and allows it to recover from any damage that HIV might have caused already.

The drugs are often referred to as: antiretrovirals, ARVs, anti-HIV or anti-AIDS drugs.

What is combination therapy?

Taking two or more antiretroviral drugs at a time is called combination therapy. Taking a combination of three or more anti-HIV drugs is sometimes referred to as Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART).

If only one drug was taken, HIV would quickly become resistant to it and the drug would stop working. Taking two or more antiretrovirals at the same time vastly reduces the rate at which resistance would develop, making treatment more effective in the long term. Our starting, monitoring and switching HIV treatment page has more about drug resistance.

What does combination therapy usually consist of?

The most common drug combination given to those beginning treatment consists of two NRTIs combined with either an NNRTI or a "boosted" protease inhibitor. Ritonavir (in small doses) is most commonly used as the booster; it enhances the effects of other protease inhibitors so they can be given in lower doses. An example of a common antiretroviral combination is the two NRTIs zidovudine and lamivudine, combined with the NNRTI efavirenz.

Some antiretroviral drugs have been combined into one pill, which is known as a ‘fixed dose combination’. This reduces the number of pills to be taken each day.

The choice of drugs to take can depend on a number of factors, including the availability and price of drugs, the number of pills, the side effects of the drugs, the laboratory monitoring requirements and whether there are co-blister packs or fixed dose combinations available. Most people living with HIV in the developing world still have very limited access to antiretroviral treatment and often only receive treatment for the diseases that occur as a result of a weakened immune system. Such treatment has only short-term benefits because it does not address the underlying immune deficiency itself.

First and second line therapy

At the beginning of treatment, the combination of drugs that a person is given is called first line therapy. If after a while HIV becomes resistant to this combination, or if side effects are particularly bad, then a change to second line therapy is usually recommended.

Second line therapy will ideally include a minimum of three new drugs, with at least one from a new class, in order to increase the likelihood of treatment success.

Our starting, monitoring and switching HIV treatment page has more information about changing HIV treatment.

More information

Choosing when to start antiretroviral treatment is a very important decision. Once treatment has begun it must be adhered to, in spite of side effects and other challenges. Many factors must be weighed up when deciding whether to begin treatment, including the results of various clinical tests. These issues are addressed in our starting, monitoring and switching HIV treatment page.