WEDNESDAY, Oct. 19 (HealthDay News) -- Three new studies provide
insight into the best time to begin AIDS drug treatments in
HIV-positive patients who are also infected with tuberculosis, a
double whammy common in Africa. Starting the drugs earlier, even by
a few weeks, could make a big difference for patients who are very
sick, the research suggests.
The cost of earlier treatment isn't much higher, and the drugs
pay big dividends, said Dr. Diane V. Havlir, lead author of one of
the studies. Her study found that starting the drugs within two
weeks of diagnosis rather than eight weeks reduced the death rate
or progression to more severe HIV by almost 40 percent in the
"This is fabulous news. It's amazing that starting it at two weeks versus eight weeks makes such a difference," said Havlir, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and head of the AIDS division at San Francisco General Hospital.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and tuberculosis frequently
strike people in less developed regions such as sub-Saharan Africa,
Havlir said. HIV disrupts the immune system, she said, making it
easier for people to get tuberculosis.
"These two diseases go hand in hand," she said. "They're synergetic, they're partners."
The studies are published in the Oct. 20 issue of the
New England Journal of Medicine.
The HIV-tuberculosis combo is less common in richer areas of the
world, such as the West, said Dr. Jeremy Farrar, co-author of a
commentary accompanying the studies. He is director of the Oxford
University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
It hasn't been clear how to treat patients who have both
diseases. Among other things, doctors worried about adding HIV
drugs to tuberculosis drugs because of concerns about side effects,
including those from drug interactions, Havlir said.
The three new studies looked at the problem from different
perspectives. In Havlir's study of 806 patients who were assigned
to different treatments, 13 percent who received earlier HIV
treatment got worse on the AIDS front or died within 48 weeks
compared to 16 percent of those who started the drugs later.
But there was a much bigger difference in patients in the worst
shape in terms of HIV: 16 percent of those who received earlier
treatment got worse or died, compared to 27 percent of those who
received later treatment.
The finding suggests that "very sick patients must be started
(on HIV drugs) immediately and early," Havlir said, but those who
are doing better can wait eight weeks.
Farrar supported the findings of the studies and agreed that
it's a good idea to start HIV treatment early in the patients whose
HIV is most severe. It will save lives and could reduce
transmission, he said.
But culture tests for TB are rare in areas lacking
state-of-the-art medical resources, so diagnoses are often based on
clinical observation of symptoms, Farrar said. Also, he noted that
most of the patients in the studies had pulmonary tuberculosis,
which is rarely life-threatening. Death rates are much higher for
more severe forms, such as tuberculous meningitis.
Farrar also acknowledged other caveats. A regimen of many pills
might lead to noncompliance among some patients, he said. For
patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis, the medication schedule
is even more daunting.
The possibility also exists of "complex interactions between the
drugs for TB and HIV and other conditions the patients have," he
"We need a much greater understanding of this interaction and work to help deliver these crucial drugs in a better way," Farrar stated.
For more about
tuberculosis, see the U.S. National Library of Medicine.