HIV-infected babies given antiretroviral drugs in the first weeks of life were four times more likely to survive than those left untreated, new research suggests.

Therapy given to infected South African infants within the first three months of life even though they appeared completely healthy helped those babies live longer than infants who started therapy after showing signs of disease, according to the early results of a study funded by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Current World Health Organization guidelines call for drugs to be administered only after signs of a weakening immune system are observed. The early results of the South African study were so promising, the findings were set to be released to the WHO and other health officials for evaluation to consider changing those recommendations.

"We're hoping that these results will have an implication in formulating guidelines all over the world," lead co-author Dr. Avy Violari of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. She was set to present the findings Wednesday at an International AIDS Society Conference in Sydney.

The trials, involving 377 babies between 6 weeks and 12 weeks old, were started in July 2005 in Soweto and Cape Town, South Africa. Of those given the drugs early despite no sign of illness, only 4 percent died compared to 16 percent in the group where treatment was delayed until the babies showed signs of disease.

Last month, an independent safety and monitoring board in London concluded that the results were so overwhelming, the study should be altered to allow all of the infants to begin treatment and the early findings should be released to the scientific community.

"The results of this trial could have significant public health implications worldwide," Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading AIDS expert and director of NIAID, said in a statement.

Every year, about half a million babies are born infected to HIV worldwide.