A new medical study out of South Africa has found heartening news in the nation with the world’s highest burden of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Their findings reveal that South Africans with HIV can live as long as HIV patients in the United States - provided they begin anti-retroviral therapy early enough.
HIV has cut a huge swath through South Africa. Today, the nation has between five and six million patients, and the world’s largest anti-retroviral treatment program.
Many AIDS activists say the disease’s wild spread in the early 2000s was multiplied by the government’s disastrous policy of denying the urgency of the epidemic and failing to offer adequate advice and treatment.
But, just a few short years after South African government turned around its policy, there is a small ray of hope. Researchers from the University of Cape Town and other institutions have concluded that South Africans now on anti-retroviral AIDS treatment fare as well as patients in developed nations after two years of treatment.
“What we found is that, although in South Africa, mortality is initially higher than it is in Europe and North America as a result of people starting treatment with more advanced disease, once people have stabilized on treatment, typically by two years, the mortality in South Africa has fallen to levels that are at least comparable to North America,” said Dr. Andrew Boulle, who is with the University of Cape Town’s School of Public Health and Family Medicine.
For four years, the researchers followed the welfare more than 30,000 HIV-positive adult patients in South Africa, comparing them to nearly 37,000 patients in North America and Europe.
At first, the news was not encouraging. Because of many factors - including stigma and lack of resources - South African patients fared worse in the first year of treatment. That is because many had entered treatment at a later stage than their Western counterparts. But after two years, the South Africans still on treatment rallied.
One reason, Boulle says, may be the social aspect of the disease. In Southern Africa, the disease covers a wide segment of the population - for example, South Africa’s government estimates that nearly 16 percent of working-age people are infected.
In developed nations, it still disproportionately affects already marginalized groups, like people who inject drugs - a group that is already less likely to get proper medical care and prone to other ailments, which puts them at a disadvantage.
Boulle says that South Africa’s massive treatment program also deserves credit for the turnaround.
“So the good news for the South African treatment program, which is a program operating at a huge scale and at huge strain to the healthcare system, is that it is achieving very good outcomes," he said. "This we already know because we’ve seen a reduction of mortality at the population level.”
And, he says, earlier research by his group has found even more encouraging news - that for patients who are doing well on treatment, their life expectancy starts to approach that of the general population, and they can expect to live a near normal lifespan.
In short, he says, after decades of pain and trauma, AIDS in southern Africa may finally be catching up with the rest of the world, where the disease is no longer an automatic death sentence - and can be a part of a long life.