A large new study has some disturbing conclusions: most Americans and Canadians infected with HIV are not being diagnosed quickly enough after exposure, raising questions about the effectiveness of potentially livesaving treatments.
The analysis was based on CD4 counts, which measure the number of T-cells (“helper” cells) at the time the patient began the treatment. These cells are the preferred target for the HIV virus, and they’re often used as a measure for immune system strength. The study, which examined the medical records of over 45,000 HIV-positive patients over a period of ten years, found that the CD4 count of most patients at the time of first treatment was below the level that scientists recommend as the starting point for medical care.
What does this mean? Well, it turns out that it’s not just bad for the patient, because delayed treatment increases the risk that the disease will progress, but it also increases the rate of transmission, turning this into a more serious public health dilemma. The average age at which patients sought care had also risen over the ten-year period, an interesting statistic that suggests that patients may be slightly less likely to seek treatment at a younger age.
In an editorial that accompanied the study, Dr. Cynthia Gay of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote,
“These findings reveal that despite such compelling data, there is much room for improving our ability to link more HIV-infected individuals with effective treatment prior to immunological deterioration.”
This means that we need to do more to promote HIV testing and increase the accessibility of these life-saving medicines. It’s clear that both because of the threat to the patient’s life and the increased likelihood that the disease will be spread, this is a crucial public health issue that we can’t afford to ignore.
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