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Anti-AIDS drugs: Currently available anti-AIDS drugs do not cure the HIV infection. They do prevent the development of AIDS. Drugs can stop the virus being made in the body and this stops the virus from damaging the immune system, but these drugs cannot eliminate HIV from the body. People with HIV infection need to continuously take antiretroviral drugs.

The use of antiretroviral (ARV) therapy in combinations of three or more drugs as a HIV treatment has dramatically improved the quality of life for people with HIV and prevented them from dying early, since 1996 in countries where they are widely accessible.

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How does HIV treatment (antiretroviral – ARV therapy) work?

HIV is a virus that infects cells of the human immune system and destroys or impairs their function. Combination ARV therapy prevents the HIV virus from multiplying inside a person. If this growth stops, then the body’s immune cells – most notably the CD4 cells – are able to live longer and provide the body protection from infections.

HIV is a very active virus that makes lots of copies of itself that then damage the body’s immune cells (CD4 cells). HIV is a very “clever” virus that quickly adapts to whatever medicines are being taken as it tries to change itself through mutations so that these medicines no longer work. Current World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for HIV treatment state that three separate ARV medicines need to be taken at all times. However, taking at least 3 medicines at the same time makes it harder for the virus to adapt and become resistant.

Side-effects of HIV treatment

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Some of these medicines can produce side effects such as nausea and vomiting or headaches. Usually most side effects are not serious and improve once the patient gets used to the medicines. However as with all medicines, sometimes unpleasant or dangerous side effects can appear. Some specific ARV medicines cause longer term changes in body shape and the distribution of fat within the body, which can be upsetting for the patient. Usually changing the ARV medicines will lead to improvement in the patients well being.

Classes of antiretroviral drugs

Antiretroviral drugs are used in the treatment and prevention of HIV infection. Antiretroviral drugs interfere with the way HIV makes copies of itself and the way it spreads from cell to cell.

Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors
HIV needs a substance called reverse transcriptase to make new copies of its genetic material (i.e. reproduce itself) elf. This group of drugs inhibits this reverse transcriptase.
Non-Nucleoside Reverse Transcriptase Inhibitors
This group of drugs also blocks the reverse transcriptase.
Protease Inhibitors
HIV needs another substance called Protease to be able to make new copies of itself. The protease inhibitors block this substance and so stop HIV multiplying. Other drugs are also available that interfere with other steps in the process HIV uses to make copies of itself.


The term Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) is used to describe a combination of three or more anti-HIV drugs.

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