Start HIV treatment regardless of CD4 count

A large international study (INSIGHT START) published in the New England Journal of Medicine has found that starting antiretroviral therapy immediately after human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) diagnosis rather than waiting until a patient’s CD4+ count has declined is of considerable benefit.

The results of the study were also released at the International AIDS Society conference in Vancouver, Canada, on 20 July.

Currently most authorities strongly recommend starting anti-HIV once CD4+ count drops to below 350 cells per cubic millimetre. Until the INSIGHT START study there was no randomized trials  showing the benefits and risks of initiating antiretroviral therapy in patients with asymptomatic HIV infection who have a CD4+ count of more than 350 .

START study conducted in 35 countries randomly assigned 4,685 HIV positive patients to either receive immediate antiretroviral therapy (median CD4+ of 650) or wait until their counts fell to below 350.

After a mean follow up of 3 years the study found that 42 patients in the immediate-initiation group died, as compared with 96 patients in the deferred-initiation group  (95% confidence interval, 0.30 to 0.62; P<0.001). Reduction in deaths were largely from tuberculosis, Kaposi’s sarcoma, and malignant lymphomas – conditions that can occur in HIV-infected individuals with only moderately damaged immune systems.

Currently the WHO requires all patients with HIV to be treated CD4+ of 500 or less. WHO may need to extend that to treating anyone at diagnosis. This would not only benefit the individual but by reducing viral shedding in body secretions reduce transmission and hence have a public health benefit. Moreover some of the costs of starting early would be offset by not needing to perform repeated CD4+ counts.

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