A new investigation has discovered that modern HIV drugs could add ten years to the life expectancy of patients with HIV. The study, published April 10 in The Lancet journal, found that 20-year-olds who started taking antiretroviral treatment in 2010 are predicted to live around ten years longer than those who first started similar treatment in 1996 when HIV drugs became widely available.

The research was conducted by scientists at Bristol University in the United Kingdom, who claim the improvements are due to fewer side effects and less toxic drugs with greater results and options for patients who are infected with HIV. Adam Trickey, a medical statistician at the University of Bristol who worked on the study, said that the research illustrates a success story of how improved HIV treatments, along with screening, prevention, and treatment of health problems linked with HIV infection, can extend the lifespan of people diagnosed with the virus.

HIV Virus
Image credit: University of California Santa Barbara.

“Combination antiretroviral therapy has been used to treat HIV for 20 years, but newer drugs have fewer side effects, involve taking fewer pills, better prevent replication of the virus and are harder for the virus to become resistant to,” said Trickey in a statement.

Trickey added that further efforts are needed if life expectancy is to match that of the general population who does not have the virus. More efforts are also required for people in some parts of the world who need better access to treatment.

The team said they hope the findings help reduce the stigma associated with living with HIV so that people infected can keep working and have easier access to medical insurance, where needed. Furthermore, the researchers said that the findings should also encourage people with HIV to start treatment as soon as possible and to stick to it.

The World Health Organization says fewer people with HIV died in the last years

For two decades, combination antiretroviral therapy has been the standard approach to treating HIV infection in North America and Europe, according to the researchers. The first antiretroviral drugs were inferior to those currently available, they noted.

Antiretroviral therapy includes a combination of three or more drugs that prevent HIV from replicating, in an attempt to avoid further damage to the body’s immune system. The treatment has also proven to prevent the spread of HIV by as much as 96 percent because it lowers the levels of the virus inside the body significantly.

The World Health Organization has recommended for years that people diagnosed with HIV must be given treatment as soon as possible, following diagnosis. Image credit: Shutterstock/Michael Jung

WHO estimates that 18.2 million people were receiving antiretroviral therapy by mid-2016 and that 46 percent of individuals infected with the virus were receiving treatment in 2015.

According to WHO, HIV claimed fewer lives in 2015 than at any previous year in almost two decades. The institution says that the massive expansion of antiretroviral therapy (ART) has reduced the number of individuals dying from HIV-related causes in the world to around 1.1 million in 2015, which was 45 percent fewer than in 2015.

Life expectancy increased by nine years for men and ten years for women

Researchers analyzed data from more than 88,504 people with HIV in Europe and North America. They discovered that fewer people who began treatment between 2008 and 2010 died during the first three years of antiretroviral therapy than those who started between 1996 and 2007. They also noted that between 1996 and 2013, life expectancy for 20-year-olds who started treatment increased by nine years for men and ten years for women.

Out of the 88,500 people analyzed in the study, 2,106 died during their first year of treatment, and 2,302 died during the second or third year. They estimated that 20-year-old men beginning treatment between 2008 and 2010 who survived the first year of treatment would live to 73, and women would live on average to 76. Non-AIDS-related deaths, especially deaths from cardiovascular disease, were also substantially lower between 2008 and 2010.

According to the World Bank, life expectancy in Canada and the UK was 81 in 2014 and around 79 in the United States. However, the study found that for people infected with HIV through injecting drugs, life expectancy did not increase significantly.

“In drug users, we must promote therapy and improve access to therapy to treat addiction as well as increasing access to hepatitis C treatment for people with both infections,” said Trickey, according to CNN.

Trickey added that even though most people are likely to start treatment soon after being diagnosed with HIV, antiretroviral drugs will only result in improved survival overall if the problems of late diagnosis and treatment access are addressed.

Source: The Lancet