HIV/AIDS study: Pill can stop spread of fatal virus

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PHOENIX – New different studies released earlier in the week indicate that a daily pill can keep a healthy person from contracting the fatal human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Dr. Larry Waldman of the Southwest Center for HIV explained what Truvada is and how it works.

The pill was given to couple in Africa, and in 75 percent of the cases, it stopped transmission of the virus. An earlier study concluded that it prevented the spread of HIV to uninfected gay men. The new study looked at its efficacy in preventing transmission between men and women.

“What the study did show is that if you give this pill or another HIV pill to people who are not infected who have regular sex with a partner who is infected, you can decrease transmission by somewhere between 60 and 75 percent,” Waldman said.

The catch is that the pill has to be taken every day, and that can be difficult for some people.

“That essentially means that you’re going to have a healthy person taking a pill for the rest of their lives or as long as their having sex with an infected person,” Waldman said. “It’s difficult when you’re not sick to take a pill every day.”

Waldman said the research is very interesting, but real-life applications are less clear. The findings mark a huge breakthrough in HIV and AIDS research and it’s something doctors, especially those who routinely deal with HIV and AIDS patients, have speculated about for years.

The antiretroviral drugs that make up Truvada and prevent the transmission of the virus are the same ones used to treat those who have already been infected with HIV. Waldman said the full course of HIV drugs can eradicate the virus from a patient’s system, which makes transmission virtually impossible. The idea is known as “treatment as prevention.”

“The theory is if we can get enough people into treatment, prevent transmission, we can break the back of the epidemic,” Waldman said.

"These studies could help us to reach the tipping point in the HIV epidemic," said Michael Sidibe, executive director of the United Nation's AIDS program, in a statement Wednesday. Waldman said he is more in favor of treating an infected person early rather than waiting for signs that his or her immune system is failing.

“We treat those people with full HIV treatment, eradicate the virus from their system and it’s going to be very difficult for them to transmit the disease,” he explained. “These studies treat the uninfected person. That’s also very effective, but again, it’s difficult for someone who’s not sick to take a pill every day.”

Truvada is made by Gilead Sciences Inc. of Foster City, Calif. A 30-day supply of Truvada costs about $900 in U.S. pharmacies and less in developing countries.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.