Sabin Russell Science Writer


It’s the Virus, Stupid

A story by me in the Sunday, April 4, 2010 Bay Area section of the New York Times. I think it is new, and interesting, and important, which as my four avid readers know, is my standard for what is news worth reading.  This one is about San Francisco taking the lead in adopting the most aggressive option for treating HIV -- a patient should start taking the antiviral meds as soon as he or she tests positive. It's controversial still, but the evidence points to a model of HIV disease in which the virus causes permanent damage while T-cell counts are still high. There was a time when an argument could be made that the medications were worse the the bug. I'm inclined to side with Dr. Follansbee's analysis below, or as he also explained it to me: "It's the virus, stupid."

City Endorses New Policy for Treatment of H.I.V.


In a major shift of H.I.V. treatment policy, San Francisco public health doctors have begun to advise patients to start taking antiviral medicines as soon as they are found to be infected, rather than waiting — sometimes years — for signs that their immune systems have started to fail.

The new, controversial city guidelines, to be announced next week by the Department of Public Health, may be the most forceful anywhere in their endorsement of early treatment against H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

Ever since combinations of antiviral drugs were found to slow progression of the disease in the mid-1990s, doctors and patients have wrestled with the question of when to begin a lifetime regimen of costly and sometimes toxic medicines. The answer remains in dispute, but public health leaders here are now making a case for a change.

Behind the policy switch is mounting evidence that patients who start early are more likely to live longer, and less likely to suffer a variety of ailments — including heart disease, kidney failure and cancer — that plague long-term survivors. Studies suggest that in the early years of infection, when a patient may show few signs of immune system failure, the virus is in fact causing permanent damage that becomes evident later.

For instance, in older patients who finally start taking the drugs, the effects of chronic inflammation take their toll.

“The impact on health risk is comparable to that of diabetes,” said Dr. Steven G. Deeks, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. “Their immune system may look like that of someone 30 years older.”

Dr. Diane V. Havlir, chief of the H.I.V./AIDS division at San Francisco General Hospital, said the new policy was already in effect for her patients. Although a decision whether or not to take the medicine rests with the patient, all those testing positive for H.I.V. will be offered combination therapy, with advice to pursue it.

“The history of H.I.V. disease has always been about change,” she said. “We pride ourselves on working quickly with new data.”

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Posted by Sabin Russell

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  1. Fascinating article about San Francisco and the treatment of HIV. I have heard of this aggressive treatment from some friends who have had positive results.

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