Antiretroviral drugs that inhibit viral replication were expected to reduce transmission of HIV by lowering the concentration of HIV in the genital tract. In 11 of 13 observational studies, antiretroviral therapy (ART) provided to an HIV-infected index case led to greatly reduced transmission of HIV to a sexual partner. In the HPTN 052 randomised controlled trial, ART used in combination with condoms and counselling reduced HIV transmission by 96·4%. Evidence is growing that wider, earlier initiation of ART could reduce population-level incidence of HIV. However, the full benefits of this strategy will probably need universal access to very early ART and excellent adherence to treatment. Challenges to this approach are substantial. First, not all HIV-infected individuals can be located, especially people with acute and early infection who are most contagious. Second, the ability of ART to prevent HIV transmission in men who have sex with men (MSM) and people who use intravenous drugs has not been shown. Indeed, the stable or increased incidence of HIV in MSM in some communities where widespread use of ART has been established emphasises the concern that not enough is known about treatment as prevention for this crucial population. Third, although US guidelines call for immediate use of ART, such guidelines have not been embraced worldwide. Some experts do not believe that immediate or early ART is justified by present evidence, or that health-care infrastructure for this approach is sufficient. These concerns are very difficult to resolve. Ongoing community-based prospective trials of early ART are likely to help to establish the population-level benefit of ART, and-if successful-to galvanise treatment as prevention.