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Many HIV Patients Turn to Alternatives

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Beal, an associate professor at the Yale School of Nursing, says since the study was so small, people shouldn't jump to conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture to relieve HIV symptoms. "However, since all of our patients in this study who had gastrointestinal symptoms had some relief, there's good reason to think there's potential for acupuncture to be effective for people with [gastrointestinal] problems either from HIV or their medicines they take for HIV." In fact, Beal says Yale researchers have applied for a grant from the NIH's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine to study acupuncture relief of gastrointestinal symptoms in people with HIV.

Health care professionals overwhelmingly agree that patients should consult their doctor before using alternative treatments, says Beal, whether it's acupuncture, changes in diet, or herbs. "There are numerous reports of people trying things on their own. I understand their desperation, but if they are unaware of the risks, they may just make matters worse."

Take the herb St. John's wort, a popular herb used to treat mild-to-moderate depression. In the U.S., herbs are categorized as food supplements and can be sold without approval from the FDA. Last February, two studies in the British medical journal The Lancet showed the herb interferes with HIV drug therapies. At the time, Georg Noll, MD, an author of one report, said many doctors and patients are not aware that herbs bought at the corner pharmacy may be dangerous, especially since they can interfere with other medications. "I tell patients they shouldn't take any over-the-counter drug without informing the treating doctor," he told WebMD. Noll is a cardiologist at University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland.

As a result of The Lancet studies, the FDA did act. It quickly issued an advisory letter to health care providers warning about combining St. John's wort with other medications. Specifically, that it can stunt HIV treatment and reduce the effectiveness of many drugs or lead to drug-resistant viruses. "People suffering want relief," Noll says. "But instead, they may just make matters worse if they don't seek sound medical advice."

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