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The first demonstration that drugs commonly taken to treat HIV can also prevent infection in the first place was published this week (23 November).

Anti-retroviral medicines taken by 2,500 men reduced infection rates by nearly three-quarters, found the clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The US$43.6 million study included men from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, South Africa, Thailand and the United States. All had had sex with men, and all carried no HIV antibodies in their blood at the beginning of the study, meaning they were not yet infected.

Those who took the antiretrovirals, as a daily pill, 90 per cent of the time had a 73 per cent reduction in their risk of becoming infected. Those with high levels of the drugs in their blood showed an even greater degree of protection, at 92 per cent.

The study "provides the first proof" that pills that control HIV in infected people can also help prevent new infections, said Robert Grant, an HIV researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, in the United States, the study's lead author.

Further studies are needed to see whether the results apply to other at-risk populations. But questions remain about whether such a strategy would work as an HIV prevention policy, with issues of cost and access in regions such as Africa. 

"There, we can't even get anti-retrovirals to the people that need them," much less those who are not yet infected, said Daniel Halperin, an HIV prevention expert at Harvard School of Public Health, United States.

Link to full article in Nature

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