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U.S. Antiretroviral Therapy Guidelines

July 5, 2014

Why Do the Guidelines Keep Changing?

We keep learning more about the best way to fight HIV. In 1998, the US Department of Health and Human Services created a panel of physicians, researchers, and consumers to develop treatment guidelines. They constantly review AIDS research results. The guidelines are updated about once each year. The panel released the latest guidelines in May 2014.

Note: These are guidelines, not rules. Patients should receive individualized care from a health care provider with experience treating HIV infection. The full text of these guidelines is available on the Internet at; choose "Guidelines."

Viral Load and CD4 Cell Testing

Viral load and CD4 cell tests provide critical information for decisions on antiretroviral therapy (ART). Before changing treatment, the tests should be repeated to confirm the results. Fact Sheet 124 has more information on CD4 cell tests and Fact Sheet 125 covers viral load testing.

Viral load should be tested:

CD4 cell counts should be done:

Resistance Testing

Viral resistance testing helps health care providers choose the most effective drugs. See Fact Sheet 126 for more information. Resistance testing is recommended for patients starting therapy, when viral load is not controlled by new medications, or when it "breaks through" a regimen that used to work. The guidelines recommend resistance testing before starting antiretroviral treatment (ART). It can also make sense for people who don't need to start ART yet. This can show if the person got infected with drug-resistant virus.

Other Laboratory Tests

The guidelines recommend using a viral tropism test (see Fact Sheet 129) before starting therapy with a CCR5 inhibitor. They also suggest using a genetic test, HLA-B*5701 before starting abacavir (see Fact Sheet 416).

When to Start Treatment

Goals of Therapy

The guidelines list the following goals for HIV therapy. Treatment goals are the same for people starting therapy and those who have been on therapy for a long time:

The following tools are suggested to help achieve these goals:

What Drugs Should Be Used First?

The guidelines list several recommended regimens for people starting anti-HIV treatment. They all contain the nucleoside analogs, emtricitabine (Emtriva) and tenofovir (Viread). Preferred regimens also include raltegravir (Isentress,) efavirenz (Sustiva,) or ritonavir-boosted atazanavir (Reyataz) or darunavir (Prezista). Many other combinations are listed as "alternative regimens." Other combinations are listed for use only when a preferred or alternative regimen cannot or should not be used.

Several drugs or combinations are listed as "Not Recommended." Some are not recommended for initial therapy due to low anti-HIV activity or inconvenience. Others are not recommended at any time. These include any nuke or non-nuke by itself (monotherapy) or just two nukes because these treatments generally have only limited benefits for a short period of time. Also, the guidelines recommend not using the triple-nuke regimens.

There are special considerations for the treatment of pregnant women (Fact Sheet 611), adolescents, drug users, people also infected with hepatitis B (Fact Sheet 506) or hepatitis C (Fact Sheet 507) or with tuberculosis (Fact Sheet 518).

Interrupting Treatment

A patient may need to interrupt treatment for several reasons: side effects are intolerable, there's a drug interaction, if they run out of any of their medications or if they have surgery scheduled.

Treatment interruptions are not recommended in response to treatment failure.

ART should only be stopped if your health care provider recommends it. Two large studies showed that people who interrupted treatment had a higher rate of HIV-related health problems or death. For more information, see Fact Sheet 406 on treatment interruptions.

When to Change

Treatment should be changed due to treatment failure, or intolerance of current drugs.

Treatment failure: Within 6 months after starting a treatment, the viral load should drop below 400 copies. Within 1 year, it should be less than 50 copies. If the viral load does not drop this much, change the treatment. Other signs of treatment failure include:

Intolerance: If a patient cannot take the prescribed drugs because of their side effects or interactions with other needed medications, the drugs should be changed.

What to Change To?

Decisions to change ART should include a review of prior treatments, physical exam, resistance testing, adherence and side effects. Ideally, three drugs that the virus will respond to can be identified and used in a new regimen.

If there are few options to change to, and viral load was reduced, it may make sense not to change medications. Another option is to use combinations that are more experimental. Treatment interruptions are not recommended.

This article was provided by AIDS InfoNet. You can find this article online by typing this address into your Web browser:

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