Washington — The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is releasing research findings that could have a direct effect on the well-being of the millions of children, adolescents and young adults infected with HIV or with fully developed AIDS.
Megadoses of vitamin D can help to counteract the bone loss that occurs as a side effect of tenofovir, a drug administered to some patients to treat HIV infection. NIH reported on the potential benefit of vitamin D for these patients on January 10.
In another study, NIH researchers and their partners found another health risk for children exposed to HIV in the womb. They can have language impairment -- that is, slowness in developing speech and difficulty understanding spoken words and expressing themselves with words.
The significance of the finding is conveyed by the numbers of youth worldwide who are HIV infected, and the potential for expanded infection in this group. A publication released jointly by the World Health Organization and the World Bank estimated that 5 million adolescents and young adults are living with HIV, and most do not know their status. This age group also comprises a disproportionate share of new infections, more than 40 percent, according to the report. Another estimate made by the U.N. Children's Fund calculated that approximately 370,000 children were born with HIV in 2009.
But the new research does provide evidence that adverse effects of treatment and exposure can be countered and treated.
Language impairment in children exposed to HIV before birth was twice as likely to occur as it does in the general population, according to the research group at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the eight NIH institutes that supported this work. The research group suggests that children with prenatal exposure to HIV - even if they do not carry the virus themselves - should be screened and evaluated for language difficulty.
Among those who do carry the virus, treatment apparently helps. The HIV-infected children receiving little or no treatment were about three times more likely to have language impairment than HIV-infected youngsters receiving treatment.
Regarding the AIDS medication and the bone loss, tenofovir is widely used to treat HIV infection, according to the NIH news release, but it causes increased levels of a hormone that leads to bone loss. The same symptom is seen in vitamin D deficiency, which led the research team to try the vitamin D supplements to counteract that side effect. Monthly 50,000-unit doses of Vitamin D accompanying tenofovir treatment resulted in reduced levels of the hormone. A longer-term study is being launched to determine if continued doses would eliminate bone loss due to tenofovir.
"People in their teens and 20s may be on anti-HIV treatment for decades to come, so finding a safe and inexpensive way to protect their long-term bone health would be a major advance," said Dr. Rohan Hazra at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
With 27 institutes and centers, NIH is the single largest source of funding for medical research in the world. On World AIDS Day December 1, President Obama renewed the U.S. commitment to funding research to curtail the global pandemic and the suffering it causes. In 2011, the United States provided treatment to almost 4 million HIV-infected people and provided care and support to 13 million people affected by HIV/AIDS, including more than 4.1 million orphans and vulnerable children.