Intensive Grief Counseling Reduces Viral Load, Study Shows
Intensive grief counseling "significantly" reduced HIV viral load, the amount of HIV in the bloodstream, in HIV-positive gay men who had recently lost a partner or close friend to AIDS, a study from the University of Miami shows. The Miami Herald reports that the study, published in the latest Journal of Human Virology, is the first to demonstrate that "behavioral intervention" can affect viral load, the "most important measure of the severity" of HIV infection. One hundred and nineteen men were recruited for the original study between 1992 and 1995. Few of the men were taking antiretroviral drugs to treat the virus, because the drugs were "too new" and the "patients too jaded," according to the Herald. The men were divided into two groups with one receiving help for grief in a community program and the other taking part in 10 "specially designed group counseling sessions." These intensive sessions, which allowed the men to talk about their experiences with a peer group, covered 10 topics and "encouraged" the men to vent their emotions, as well as "face the future" and learn to deal with stress. With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers, led by Dr. Karl Goodkin of the University of Miami, measured participants' CD4+ cell counts before beginning the program, immediately after completion of the program and six months later. The study found that those with the intensive therapy had "stable" CD4+ cell counts while those in the other program showed a "continued decline" in cell count numbers. When viral load was later determined to be the "most important" measure of HIV infection, researchers selected 36 participants at random and measured their viral loads, using blood samples that were "stockpiled" throughout the trial. After controlling for other factors, such as medications and the stage of the disease, researchers found that participants in the intensive therapy group showed "significant decreases" in viral load levels and demonstrated a "marked improvement" in well-being. Stress has been shown to "exacerbate" many illnesses, including diabetes, high blood pressure and some types of cancers. The therapy sessions allowed the men to talk about their experiences with a peer group. Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that adding group therapy to antiretroviral therapy would be beneficial to HIV patients. "[E]very single doctor treating HIV -- and many other serious diseases -- should think hard about helping patients with their mental health so the outcome of treatment will be better. It's not enough just to give people pills," Dr. Alberto Avendano, director of HIV services at UM's Department of Family Medicine, said (Morris, Miami Herald, 3/3).This is part of the KHN Morning Briefing, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.