BACKGROUND: Cryptococcal meningitis accounts for 20 to 25% of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome-related deaths in Africa. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is essential for survival; however, the question of when ART should be initiated after diagnosis of cryptococcal meningitis remains unanswered. METHODS: We assessed survival at 26 weeks among 177 human immunodeficiency virus-infected adults in Uganda and South Africa who had cryptococcal meningitis and had not previously received ART. We randomly assigned study participants to undergo either earlier ART initiation (1 to 2 weeks after diagnosis) or deferred ART initiation (5 weeks after diagnosis). Participants received amphotericin B (0.7 to 1.0 mg per kilogram of body weight per day) and fluconazole (800 mg per day) for 14 days, followed by consolidation therapy with fluconazole. RESULTS: The 26-week mortality with earlier ART initiation was significantly higher than with deferred ART initiation (45% [40 of 88 patients] vs. 30% [27 of 89 patients]; hazard ratio for death, 1.73; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.06 to 2.82; P = 0.03). The excess deaths associated with earlier ART initiation occurred 2 to 5 weeks after diagnosis (P = 0.007 for the comparison between groups); mortality was similar in the two groups thereafter. Among patients with few white cells in their cerebrospinal fluid (<5 per cubic millimeter) at randomization, mortality was particularly elevated with earlier ART as compared with deferred ART (hazard ratio, 3.87; 95% CI, 1.41 to 10.58; P = 0.008). The incidence of recognized cryptococcal immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome did not differ significantly between the earlier-ART group and the deferred-ART group (20% and 13%, respectively; P = 0.32). All other clinical, immunologic, virologic, and microbiologic outcomes, as well as adverse events, were similar between the groups. CONCLUSIONS: Deferring ART for 5 weeks after the diagnosis of cryptococcal meningitis was associated with significantly improved survival, as compared with initiating ART at 1 to 2 weeks, especially among patients with a paucity of white cells in cerebrospinal fluid.