Background: There is limited evidence about longer-term effects of combination antiretroviral therapy that includes protease inhibitors (PIs) on the immunological status of HIV-1-infected children. Better understanding might help to resolve questions on when to initiate treatment. Methods: The change in percentage of CD4-positive T lymphocytes (CD4%) was investigated in 1012 previously treated HIV-1-infected children (aged 0-17 years) who were enrolled in research clinics in the USA before 1996 and followed up to 2000. 702 started PI-based combination therapy. Data analyses ignored subsequent treatment changes. Findings: Among the 1012 children, the median CD4% increased from 22% to 28% between 1996, when PIs were first prescribed, and 2000. For the 702 who started PI-based therapy, the mean CD4% increase after 3 years was largest among participants with the greatest immunosuppression (15.7%, 10.6%, 5.1%, and 2.0% for participants with CD4% before therapy of <5%, 5-14%, 15-24%, and ≥25%; p<0.0001). After adjustment for pre-PI CD4%, the mean increase was largest among the youngest participants (9.2%, 8.0%, and 4.3% for ages <5 years, 5-9 years, and ≥10 years; p=0.001). However, only a minority of significantly immunocompromised participants (33%, 26%, and 49% of those with pre-PI CD4% of <5%, 5-14%, or 15-24%) achieved CD4% values above 25%, whereas 84% of those with pre-PI values above 25% maintained such values. Interpretation: Although PI-based therapy was associated with substantial improvements in CD4%, initiation before severe immunosuppression and at younger ages may be more effective for recovery or maintenance of normal CD4%. Randomised investigation of when to start combination therapy in children, particularly infants, is needed.
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