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A federal advisory committee Tuesday recommended that the anti-AIDS drug AZT be approved for wider use among people infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

AZT, or zidovudine, is approved for use in patients who have full-blown AIDS, but a study has shown it can prolong the lives of people in earlier stages of the disease.

The Food and Drug Administration advisory panel said, "While this benefit has been clearly established, the committee emphasizes the need to carefully study and document the potential risks associated with prolonged zidovudine therapy, especially those related to the drug's cancer-causing potential, and any possible unique effects on women's fetuses and children."

Last August, officials at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said a clinical trial showed AZT significantly slows progression of AIDS in patients with early symptoms. The results were so promising that officials stopped the trial and began offering AZT to all study patients.

The FDA Antiviral Drugs Advisory Committee unanimously agreed the FDA should recommend use of AZT in people with levels of critical immune system cells, called T-4 cells, under 500 per cubic millimeter. The drug is now recommended for use in people whose T-4 cells are below 200 -- those considered to have full-blown AIDS.

AZT is being used by more than 40,000 people in the United States.

As many as 500,000 of the estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million people in the United States infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, are believed to have T-4 cell counts between 200 and 500, according to the Public Health Service. However, many do not know they are infected with HIV.

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