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There is a chance of "turning the tide" on the AIDS epidemic, according to researchers, following the early release of results showing that anti-retroviral drugs can prevent transmission of HIV.

Scientists from the National Institutes of Health, United States, found that treating heterosexual HIV patients with anti-retrovirals (ARVs) drastically reduces their chances of passing on the infection, something that has been only anecdotally observed until now.

The interim results of their study of more than 1,700 people showed a protection rate of 96 per cent — enough for an independent panel monitoring the research to recommend that they be released four years before the nine-country study was due to end.

In the study, of couples in which one partner was infected with HIV and the other was not, half of infected partners took ARVs straight away while the other half waited until the later stages of the disease. In the non-treated group 27 people passed HIV onto their partners while, in the treated group, only one did.

The Wall Street Journal said the results are likely to water down a "bitter feud" in the AIDS world about whether resources should be focused on treatment or prevention — the new study demonstrates that treatment is also prevention.

But it said that funding will be a huge obstacle to implementing the results of the study. Even finding the money to treat those with advanced AIDS symptoms has been a struggle.

The new research shows that infected people should receive the drug much earlier.

"I was bowled over ... If we can implement this we have a real chance to turn the tide on the HIV epidemic," Salim Abdool Karim, an AIDS researcher and professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, who was not involved in the study, told the The Wall Street Journal.

More than 33 million people are infected with HIV worldwide.

Link to full article in The Wall Street Journal