Vitamin Supplementation for HIV

A new study shows promise for an inexpensive yet effective weapon for battling HIV among newly-infected patients in cash-strapped countries.

It may also prove useful in the United States, according to a doctor not affiliated with the research.

In the study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Florida International University researcher Marianna Baum showed that a multivitamin combined with selenium significantly slowed the progression of HIV in people who had not yet received antiretroviral therapy, or ART.

A Crisis in Botswana 

The study examined 878 HIV-infected people in the African nation of Botswana who had never received ART. After two years, those who took the multivitamin-selenium supplement were far less likely to see their CD-4 T cell counts fall below 250 than those who received a placebo.

The study also showed that taking either the multivitamin or selenium alone did not pack the same punch as the combo, and in some cases had no effect.

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The benchmark CD-4 T cell count of 250 mirrored Botswana's guideline at the time for beginning ART. The floor has since been lifted to 350. Still, the World Health Organization recommends initiating ART at T cell counts below 500.

“ART is quite expensive, and these countries don't have enough resources to provide it,” Baum, a professor of nutrition, told Healthline. “Once you give ART, you have to have the manpower and the infrastructure to provide and monitor the course of the disease. If people become resistant, you need to know and change the meds.” 

The medical infrastructure is lacking in countries like Botswana, so some patients may not begin ART soon enough. But the supplement Baum studied may keep people healthier for longer without ART, allowing these countries to spread out their limited resources. 

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Almost one quarter of adults ages 15 to 49 in Botswana have HIV, according to UNAIDS, hitting the country's workforce especially hard.

Implications for HIV Treatment in the U.S.

Previous research has demonstrated the benefits of multivitamins and selenium, but only in advanced stages of HIV and among pregnant women, Baum said.

Dr. Jeffrey Samet, a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, said Baum's work is solid, and noted that there are also many people in the U.S. who have HIV but have not yet begun ART.

“It really does have potential implications for people in the U.S.,” Samet told Healthline. “This is fairly compelling [evidence] for giving serious consideration to what is essentially a vitamin-selenium addition.”

The supplement used in Baum's study contained vitamins B, C, and E, plus selenium. Samet said he's currently exploring the impact of zinc supplements on HIV-infected drinkers in Russia.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse funded Baum's study, which included HIV-positive drug users, she said.

See How HIV Affects the Body »