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HIV Treatment Guidelines

August 22, 2014

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HIV Treatment Guidelines

Table of Contents

What Are Treatment Guidelines?

US Guidelines

A branch of the US government, called the Department of Health and Human Services, (DHHS), has put together a set of HIV treatment guidelines. The guidelines provide a lot of useful information to help health care providers and people living with HIV make decisions about when to start, when to stop, and when to change HIV medications. It also helps providers and people living with HIV (HIV+) choose among the many available HIV drugs.

The US DHHS provides several different treatment guidelines related to HIV care. These include the Perinatal Guidelines, the Treatment of Opportunistic Infections Guidelines, and the Pediatric Antiretroviral Treatment Guidelines. Links to all of these treatment guidelines can be found here. This article discusses only the recommendations contained within the Guidelines for Antiretroviral Treatment in Adults and Adolescents.

The DHHS guidelines are written and reviewed regularly by a group of HIV experts, including researchers, health care providers, and community activists. They were first published in 1998 and have been updated many times since then. The most recent guidelines were released in May 2014. The full version of the guidelines is available at Some of the important updates in the most recent version of the DHHS guidelines for the treatment of HIV in adults and adolescents are listed below.

Global Guidelines

The World Health Organization (WHO) released new HIV treatment guidelines in June 2013 at the International AIDS conference in Malaysia. The WHO recommends that HIV drugs be offered to all those living with HIV whose CD4 count is less than 500. It also recommends that HIV drugs be offered to certain groups as soon as they test positive for HIV:

  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • HIV+ people whose regular sexual partners are HIV-negative
  • Those with active tuberculosis (TB)
  • Those with hepatitis B and severe chronic (long-term) liver disease
  • Children younger than five years of age

The guidelines also recommend using viral load tests instead of CD4 counts to see how HIV drugs are working.

Treatment Goals

The guidelines describe the goals of HIV treatment. They are basically to keep you as healthy and as well as possible using the best care and treatment available today. The goals are the same for people just starting treatment and those who have been on treatment for a long time:

  • Preserve or improve the health of your immune system by increasing your CD4 cells
  • Get your viral load as low as possible for as long as possible
  • Improve your quality of life and reduce illness and death
  • Prevent HIV transmission

Key Changes in the Revised May 2014 US DHHS Guidelines

Some of the important updates in the most recent version of DHHS guidelines for the treatment of HIV in adults and adolescents are listed here:

  • The DHHS's panel of experts suggests that viral load is the best measure of a person's response to HIV drugs (antiretroviral therapy). Frequent checking of people's CD4 counts, especially for those who are virally suppressed and have higher CD4 counts (>300 cells/mm3), is not required. Instead, the panel recommends that, for people who have been taking HIV drugs for two years and have been virally suppressed, CD4 counts can be tested once a year if their CD4 count is between 300 and 500 cells/mm3. For those with CD4 counts over 500, CD4 testing is optional.
  • New terminology: In the past, recommendations for HIV drugs when first starting treatment were called "preferred" drug regimens. Now these initial combination treatment regimens are called "recommended" regimens. More details about the new recommended and alternative HIV drug regimens are listed below.
  • When considering switching HIV drug regimens, the panel recommends that the key concern should be maintaining viral suppression while keeping future treatment options open. There is also a new table to guide health care providers about when to switch HIV drug regimens because of side effects.

More information on what the guidelines recommend is included below.

When to Start Treatment?

There has been a lot of discussion and debate about when to start treatment over the years. The guidelines have been changed a number of times. Some earlier versions recommended that people wait longer before starting HIV treatment. This was because of concerns about the HIV drugs, such as side effects and difficult dosing schedules. It was thought that HIV was not as harmful as possible drug side effects in people with higher CD4 counts.

There is now more proof that untreated HIV is bad for your health at all stages of infection. Several large studies have shown that people who begin treatment early have a better outcome than those who wait to start treatment until their HIV has gotten worse. Also, the drug combinations now available are easier to take and have fewer side effects than older regimens. For these reasons the newest guidelines recommend starting earlier.

The current US guidelines state:

  • HIV treatment is recommended for anyone who is HIV+, no matter what their CD4 count. This recommendation also includes the following:

    • HIV treatment can prevent both AIDS-related and non-AIDS-related illness in people living with HIV
    • HIV treatment can prevent transmission of HIV to others. Research has shown that taking HIV drugs as they are prescribed can reduce the amount of HIV in the blood and genital fluids. Therefore, HIV+ people on HIV treatment are less likely to spread the virus to others.
    • HIV treatment should only be started when people understand the risks and benefits of treatment and are willing and able to commit to taking HIV drugs as they are prescribed (this is known as adherence)
  • HIV treatment is also strongly recommended if you are in one or more of the following situations, no matter what your CD4 count:

    • You have or had symptoms of AIDS (such as opportunistic infections, also called OIs)
    • You are a pregnant woman
    • You have HIV-related kidney disease (HIVAN or HIV nephropathy)
    • You need treatment for hepatitis B and/or hepatitis C
  • The DHHS panel's recommendation to begin treatment with a CD4 count above 500 is a "moderately strong" recommendation based on expert opinion and not on data from clinical trials. The panel's recommendation to begin treatment with a CD4 count under 500 is based on the results of well-designed studies and is considered strong.
  • The guidelines also point to several conditions that increase the need for treatment, such as rapidly declining CD4 count (more than 100 cells per year) or higher viral load (more than 100,000 copies)
  • HIV drugs should be offered to people who are at risk of spreading HIV to their sexual partners. Because starting medication is such an important decision, the guidelines suggest considering more than just your CD4 count and viral load. It is important to think about whether you are ready to start and able to take your medications as prescribed. You and your health care provider should consider the risks and benefits of starting treatment earlier or later.

Potential Benefits of Starting Therapy Early

  • Keeping your CD4 count higher
  • Lowering the risk of HIV-related problems that occur even when your CD4 count is high (such as tuberculosis and certain types of cancer)
  • Lowering the risk of heart, liver, and kidney disease that occur more often in HIV+ people
  • Reducing your risk of transmitting HIV to others

Potential Risks of Starting Therapy Early

  • Experiencing drug-related side effects, including possible long-term side effects not yet known
  • Developing drug resistance (when an HIV drug is no longer able to fight HIV effectively, we say that HIV has become "resistant" to that drug); drug resistance can reduce future treatment options
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Read the Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in HIV-1-Infected Adults and Adolescents (PDF)
More News and Analysis on HIV Treatment Guidelines

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This article was provided by The Well Project. Visit The Well Project's Web site to learn more about their resources and initiatives for women living with HIV. The Well Project shares its content with to ensure all people have access to the highest quality treatment information available. The Well Project receives no advertising revenue from or the advertisers on this site. No advertiser on this site has any editorial input into The Well Project's content.

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