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How HIV Treatment Can Curb The Spread Of AIDS

As the prepares to open this weekend in Washington, one of the catch phrases swirling around the AIDS community is "treatment as prevention."

Researchers, clinicians and HIV policy experts are hailing treatment that helps prevent more infections as a possible way to end the pandemic.

The idea is to get powerful AIDS drugs to everyone who is infected. Studies have found that these drugs make a person less likely to transmit the virus to others because they decrease the level of virus in the body. Thus, treatment as prevention could slow the spread of AIDS.

This is a 180-degree shift in the fight against HIV, which has focused on blocking the transmission of the virus with condoms, microbicides or dental dams.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday that it's preparing new guidelines for using AIDS drugs for HIV prevention.

At a public health clinic in the South African province of Kwazulu Natal, nurse Futi Mlambo says treatment as prevention also works on a social level.

As people in the community see that treatment is successful, more of them are willing to get tested, says Mlambo. This alone could reduce the spread of HIV. Research has shown that individuals who know they're infected are more likely to use condoms.

Mlambo says HIV drug therapy also improves the morale of the clinic staff. "Once you see a person who comes in for testing and he can't even walk," she says, "And then a few months after starting the treatment, you find that he's well and walking around, you feel that 'You know, man, I've done something!'"

Over the last few years, South Africa has finally caught up with the rest of the world and is aggressively trying to get AIDS drugs to people who need them. South Africa has the largest number of people infected with HIV in the world, at 5.6 million. Now South Africa also has more people on anti-retroviral therapy — 1.8 million — than anywhere else.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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