updated 7/24/2007 6:32:25 PM ET 2007-07-24T22:32:25

HIV-infected babies given antiretroviral drugs in the first weeks of life were four times more likely to survive than those left untreated, raising hopes that more young lives can be saved, new research suggests.

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Drugs given to infected infants in South Africa — even though they appeared healthy — helped them live longer than babies who started therapy after showing signs of disease, according to early results of a study sponsored by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

World Health Organization guidelines now call for medicines to be administered only after signs of disease or a weakening immune system are observed. But the South African study was so promising that its findings were being released to the WHO and other health officials so they could consider modifying the recommendations.

“It’s very good news for young patients and parents,” co-author Dr. Avy Violari of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg told The Associated Press on Tuesday. She was to present the findings Wednesday at an International AIDS Society Conference in Sydney.

“We were not expecting such short-term benefits,” she said.

Overwhelming results
The trial, involving 377 babies between 6 weeks and 12 weeks old, started in July 2005 in Soweto and Cape Town. Of those given the drugs early despite no sign of illness, 4 percent died over a 48-week period compared to 16 percent in the group where treatment was delayed until the babies showed signs of disease.

Last month, an independent safety and monitoring board in London concluded the results were so overwhelming that the study should be altered to allow all the infants to begin treatment and that the early findings should be released to the scientific community.

“The results of this trial could have significant public health implications worldwide,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading AIDS expert and director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement.

Every year, about a half million babies are born infected with HIV worldwide. Their immune systems are not fully developed within the first year, making them more susceptible to the disease.

No major negative side effects were documented in the trial, but the babies will be followed for three more years to determine whether they experience any, said co-author Dr. Mark Cotton.

He said it’s important for HIV-positive newborns to be identified early and for policy makers to support treatment.

“We’ve provided the information, but it has to be implemented into a program that works,” he said. “We’re quite relieved, in a way, that we have this finding and we have a clear directive of what to do.”

Also at the AIDS conference on Tuesday:

  • Robert Bailey, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois, said studies in Africa showed that uncircumcised men were 2½ times more likely to contract HIV from infected female partners. Only 30 percent of men worldwide have had the procedure, mostly in countries where it is common for religious or health reasons.
  • The American Foundation for AIDS Research said HIV infection rates among men who have sex with men were rising in Africa, Asia and Latin America, citing figures from UNAIDS. Studies also show that less than 5 percent of that group have access to HIV-related health care, the research group said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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