Updated: World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day and marks the 30th year since the beginning of the epidemic that has killed 30 million people worldwide. Over the past 30 years more than three dozen drugs have been developed and approved to treat HIV/AIDS. Work continues by America’s biopharmaceutical researchers to improve treatment regimens and to develop preventative vaccines. This morning, at a World AIDS Day event in Washington, President Obama pledged to significantly increase access to these life-saving AIDs drugs for people in the United States and in the rest of the world.

Although the rate of new infections may be declining in other countries it continues to rise in the United States. Some 110,000 people are infected with HIV in New York City. These cases in New York City represent about 75 percent of all HIV cases in the entire state of New York. Studies have shown that education and testing combined with early treatment is an effective strategy to combat the spread of the epidemic.  New York City’s Health Commissioner Thomas Farley wants to start treating individuals diagnosed with HIV more aggressively.  Today, Farley’s office released guidance that recommends patients diagnosed with HIV be offered antiretroviral drugs as soon as they are diagnosed.  A copy of the Commissioner’s letter can be accessed here.

The conventional protocol has been to delay placing patients on the drug protocol until the individuals’ immune system had show signs of weakening.  Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services Panel on Antiretroviral Guidelines for Adults and Adolescents has been evenly divided on initiating early drug therapy or leaving it elective. Some HIV experts worry about possible side effects, patient adherence and drug resistance stemming from long term use. The cost of the drugs is also a concern for consumers.

Commissioner Farley is convinced that the benefits of early drug therapy outweigh the potential risks.  Experts believe early drug therapy can allow patients to enjoy healthier lives and dramatically cut HIV transmission rates. In a country where more than 56,000 people are newly infected with HIV each year, many believe Commissioner Farley’s bold action is necessary. City health officials anticipate that the costs would be covered by private insurance or by the AIDS Drug Assistance Program.  Many expect the long term benefits of the drug therapy to far outweigh initial cost concerns.

Update: Check out this video, Fighting HIV:AIDS, illustrating how the disease and the world have changed over the past 30 years.

-Jaime Venditti, 12/1/11