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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Earlier treatment may be better when it comes to taking drugs for the AIDS virus, researchers reported on Sunday.
Patients were more than 70 percent less likely to die when they started taking cocktails of HIV drugs earlier than currently recommended, they told a meeting of infectious disease specialists.
There is no cure for the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS but combinations of drugs can keep the virus from replicating and damaging the immune system.
It has not been entirely clear when patients should start taking them, though, and most doctors wait until there is some evidence of damage, measured by counting the number of immune cells called CD4 T-cells.
Current treatment guidelines call for patients to start highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, when they have fewer than 350 CD4 cells per milliliter of blood.
U.S. and Canadian researchers led by Dr. Mari Kitahata of the University of Washington in Seattle looked at information in International Epidemiology Databases to Evaluate AIDS, a global network of HIV clinics from 1996 to 2006.
They compared the records of 8,374 healthy HIV patients with CD4 counts of 351 to 500 who had never taken HAART.
During the time studied, 30 percent of them started HAART while the rest waited until their CD4 counts fell below 350.
Those who waited were 71 percent more likely to die of something during the study period than those who took the drugs early, Kitahata's team told a joint meeting of the American Society of Microbiology and the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
A study released earlier this month showed that patients infected with HIV who take breaks from HAART are more likely to die of heart attacks, strokes and other deadly blood clots.
An estimated 33 million people globally are infected with the AIDS virus. About a 1.1 million Americans are, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in five do not know it, which means they cannot be treated.
The CDC estimates that more than 56,000 Americans are newly infected with HIV annually.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Bill Trott