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Vitamins found to slow AIDS

Vitamins found to slow AIDS
Researchers say effects of vitamins B, C and E are especially important in Africa, where people are often malnourished and can't get AIDS drugs

Thursday, July 1, 2004 - Page A15
Source: The Globe and Mail

Multivitamin supplements can delay the need for anti-retroviral drugs in people with HIV-AIDS, new research has found.

In an eight-year experiment involving 1,078 Kenyan women, scientists found that vitamins significantly slowed the progression of the infectious disease. They say their findings could be especially important in Africa, where the World Health Organization plans to treat three million people with drug cocktails that have saved the lives of thousands of patients in Western countries.

"There is an important role for multivitamins as part of the package for treating AIDS," said Dr. Wafai Fawzi, a Harvard University researcher and lead author of a paper published in today's edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. He and his colleagues say all people infected with HIV-AIDS should consider taking multivitamin supplements before beginning anti-retroviral therapy.

Many doctors recommend that anti-retroviral drugs shouldn't be administered until patients show symptoms of the disease, or the virus reaches relatively high levels of concentration in their blood, or their white-blood-cell count drops. Taking vitamins, the new research shows, means patients can wait longer before taking the drugs, which saves money and reduces the risk of serious side effects.

Researchers have long suspected that multivitamins might slow the progression of HIV-AIDS, and many doctors in North America recommend their patients take them. Vitamins can play a role in boosting the immune system, and a previous experiment in Thailand found that infected adults who received vitamins were less likely to die from the disease.

The experiment with the Kenyan women was designed to come up with more concrete proof, and to compare different vitamins. Researchers gave one group of women a daily pill containing vitamins B, C and E, and a second group was given a sugar pill, or placebo. A third group was given a daily pill containing just vitamin A.

The daily multivitamin contained doses of eight to 10 times the amount in an average vitamin pill, but was still within the established safety limits, said Dr. Fawzi. The women who took the multivitamin did much better than the others. Their disease progressed more slowly, and fewer of them died from an AIDS-related cause. Tests showed that the vitamins made their immune systems more active.

There is a chance the findings may not apply to all HIV-AIDS patients, especially those who already eat a healthy diet. The vitamin supplements may have had such an impact in the women from Kenya because they were nutritionally deprived, the researchers said.

Not all vitamins may be helpful when it comes to fighting HIV-AIDS. An earlier experiment showed that vitamin A supplements increased the chances that an infected mother will pass the disease on to her child.

In the Kenyan study, the women on the vitamin A didn't do much better than those given the placebo pill. The researchers also found that adding vitamin A to the multivitamin supplement significantly reduced the benefits of the treatment. (A fourth group in the study was given a multivitamin that included B, C, and E as well as A.)

The researchers say their next step is to figure out whether patients who are already taking anti-retrovirals could also benefit from a multivitamin supplement.