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Last Updated: Monday, 17 December 2007, 19:22 GMT
Approval for once-a-day HIV pill
By Jane Dreaper
Health correspondent, BBC News

HIV pills
The pill combines three drugs
The first HIV medication which involves taking just one pill a day has been approved by the European authorities.

The go-ahead for Atripla represents what some experts say is a revolution in treatment for the virus that causes Aids, although it is not a cure.

People using the earliest HIV drugs in 1996 had to take up to 30 pills on an empty stomach at different times.

The decision means Atripla can be used in the UK but local health bodies must decide whether the NHS will provide it.

This is a big advance for patients - it almost normalises HIV
Dr Simon Portsmouth
HIV consultant

Taking Atripla does not reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.

The drugs regime has already reduced to just several pills a day for people newly diagnosed with HIV.

Rival companies

But it is highly symbolic that managing the condition will, for some patients, now become almost as simple as taking a daily statin tablet.

Atripla combines three existing drugs (efavirenz, tenofovir and emtricitabine). It has come into existence as a result of collaboration between three rival drug companies - Gilead Sciences, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck.

The single pill was licensed in the US in July last year - and is now given to half of all patients who are newly diagnosed there.

Approval by the European Commission means Atripla will soon be available to people with HIV in Germany, Austria and the UK.

In the UK, it will be available through the NHS, but this will be at the discretion of primary care trusts (PCTs)and GPs.

Dr Simon Portsmouth, a leading HIV consultant, said: "This is a big advance for patients. It almost normalises HIV.

"They can just take this pill before they go to bed at night, and it doesn't take over their whole life."

Dr Portsmouth, based at St Mary's Hospital in west London, added: "Because we've been using the components of Atripla for some time, we know what side effects to expect.

"Probably more than half of patients initially will get some dizziness, or abnormal dreams, or sleep disturbance. But generally this medicine is pretty well-tolerated.

"And we'll spend lots of time with each person, explaining the drug and why they need to take it carefully all the time."

Not straightforward

Gilead senior vice-president Paul Carter said: "There has been a huge amount of manufacturing work to bring this drug to the market.

"Trying to get three drugs into one pill isn't a straightforward procedure.

"But nevertheless we anticipate that across Europe, Atripla will be available at a price which is in parity with the sum of its component parts."

Merck, meanwhile, is taking a lead in trying to make the pill available to people with HIV in Africa, at a lower price.

Mr Carter pointed out that drug development in this field is a never-ending task.

"We see plenty of room for better treatments in the years ahead," he said.

"It's a key issue that HIV builds up resistance, and therefore the industry needs a continual pipeline of new drugs."

Lisa Power, of the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust, said: "Most people have trouble with a week's worth of antibiotics - imagine taking them for life.

"So combining an already widely used combination of treatments into one pill, once a day will help many people with HIV maintain a normal life at work and home."

27 Feb 06 |  Medical notes

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