Antiretroviral treatment can help HIV patients live a "near normal" life

Antiretroviral treatment is the main type of treatment for HIV or AIDS. It is not a cure, but access to treatment can help stop HIV patients from becoming ill for many years, and can even help them live a "near normal" life.

What antiretroviral treatment does is that it keeps the amount of HIV in the body at a low level. This stops any weakening of the immune system and allows it to recover from any damage that HIV might have already caused.

The treatment consists of drugs that have to be taken every day for the rest of a person's life. Also, the drugs need to be taken at the same time(s) every day. Some people may experience serious side-effects such as nausea, vomiting, rash and diarrhoea, or may not respond to certain drugs.

There are currently over 20 approved antiretroviral drugs.

First and second line therapy

At the beginning of treatment, the combination of drugs that is given to a patient is called first-line therapy. However, if the virus grows resistant to this combination over time, or if the side-effects are particularly bad, then a change to second-line therapy is usually necessary.

Second-line therapy typically includes a minimum of three new drugs, with at least one from a new class, in order to elevate the likelihood of treatment success.

In Malaysia, first-line antiretroviral therapy is fully subsidised, while second-line antiretroviral therapy is partially subsidised. Antiretroviral therapy is also available in prisons.

Combination therapy

Taking two or more antiretroviral drugs simultaneously is called combination therapy. Taking a combination of three or more anti-HIV drugs is often referred to as Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART).

If only one drug was administered, the virus would quickly become resistant to it and the drug would stop working. Taking two or more antiretroviral drugs at the same time can significantly reduce the rate at which resistance would develop, making treatment more effective in the long term.

Some antiretroviral drugs have been merged into one pill, which is known as a "fixed dose combination". This reduces the number of pills that a patient has to take every day.

The choice of drugs to be administered depends on a number of factors, including the price and the availability of drugs, the number of pills, and the side effects of the drugs.

In the developing world, most people living with HIV still have very limited access to antiretroviral treatment and only receive treatment for diseases that occur as a result of a weakened immune system.

Such treatment only has short-term benefits because it does not address the underlying immune deficiency.