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Is there new hope in fight against HIV, AIDS?

SAN DIEGO – Aggressive, early anti-retroviral treatment (ARV) may be the key to halting the spread of AIDS, one of the world’s top authorities in HIV research said Saturday.

Charting this new course could lead to eradication of AIDS within 40 years, said Dr. Brian Williams, professor of epidemiology of the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis in Stellenbosch.

Williams spoke during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego.

Noting that a successful vaccine against HIV is not within sight, Williams said universal testing and treatment could prevent transmission of the disease.

More than 30 million people worldwide are infected with HIV and two million people dying of AIDS each year, he said.

"The epidemic of HIV is really one of the worst plagues of human history," Williams said.

"The tragedy is that the disease continues unabated. The only real success story is the development of these extremely effective drugs that keep people alive and reduce their viral load by up to 2,000 times. They become close to non-infectious.

"While the rapid scale-up in the provision of ARV in the last five years has exceeded expectations, it has not reduced HIV-transmission and AIDS-related TB because it has been given too late in the course of infection."

Early detection, Williams said, is vital to successful treatment.

"We've been using drugs to save lives, but not stop the infection," he said. "It's time to look beyond that."

Clinical trials beginning in the U.S., Canada and sub-Saharan Africa may provide crucial answers in a year or two, he said.

"We need to get answers [from these trials] quickly. That will help us move forward," Williams said.

"We could break the back of the epidemic. If we can do it, I'm confident it will work."