Updated 04 July 2014

Would you take ARVs to prevent HIV?

Taking ARVs daily have reduced HIV risk in South Africa by 30 percent. How viable is it as a preventative measure?


Treatments as prevention have been on the rise as antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) have been introduced as a way to repress HIV transmission.

South Africa has the largest number of people in the world on ARV therapy, with more than 2 million people on the HIV treatment; antiretroviral therapy is the use of three or more ARVs to repress the HIV virus.

See more: ARVs: the truth

In 2013, The World Health Organization (WHO) began recommending an earlier introduction of HIV treatment through the use of ARVs because latest research showed that starting treatment earlier, when a patient's immune system is stronger, extends lifespan and results in fewer transmissions of HIV.

Statistics released by UNAIDS show that ARV therapy reduces the risk of an HIV positive person developing tuberculosis by 65 percent

Additionally, their studies have shown that the estimated number of new infections in South Africa has reduced from 540,000 to 370,000, which is a 30 percent decrease since the beginning of the government’s ARV rollout plan.

See more: Fear over ARV resistance

HIV infection is preventable, yet every year, the number of those diagnosed with HIV increases. From 2002 to 2013, the total number of those diagnosed with HIV in South Africa increased from about 4 million to about 5.26 million.

However, these numbers may be highly skewed; UNAIDS estimates that only half of the world’s population living with HIV knows that they’re HIV positive. Those who do not know they are HIV positive are therefore missing out on the opportunity to seek out HIV treatment and prevention services.

See more: HIV & pregnancy

 “A case study in Mississippi, United States found that a baby whose mother had not received antiretroviral medicines during pregnancy, and was treated with antiretroviral drugs in the first 30 hours of life and continued on treatment for the 18 months appeared to be functionally cured of HIV infection,” states UNAIDS.

In fact, with the use of ARV treatments, the annual number of new HIV infections among children has decreased about 52 percent between the years of 2001 to 2012.

See more: Kids and HIV

“In a cohort study in France, 20 adults had taken HIV treatment for years and then stopped, were shown to remain healthy and may also have been functionally cured,” states UNAIDS.

Studies such as these offer hope that the early use of ARVs may also play an important role in the discovery of a cure for HIV.

However, since HIV is a chronic condition and HIV treatment has to be taken for life, the continuous use of ARVs can cause side effects that need to be addressed.

Some side effects come and go, such as nausea, headaches and diarrhea; other health problems are more severe and can worsen over time, such as nerve damage and fat redistribution.

Read more:

South Africa celebrates 10 years of free HIV treatment
ARVs plus the right care it what's saving lives
ARV's and care saves lives


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HIV/Aids expert

Dr Sindisiwe van Zyl qualified at the University of Pretoria before working for an HIV/AIDS NPO in Soweto for many years. She was named one of the Mail & Guardian's Top 200 Young South Africans in 2012.

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