Prior to the mid 1990s, before the antiviral “cocktails” (a combination of 3 or more anti-HIV medications) were discovered, being diagnosed with AIDS was almost a death sentence. Things have changed radically since then. Now, a 20 year-old newly diagnosed with HIV can expect to live an almost normal lifespan. This was the conclusion of research just published in the British medical journal The Lancet.
The researchers followed the medical history of over 88,000 men and women from 1996 through 2010. They wanted to see how the life expectancy for HIV positive people had changed over the 14 years. The authors found that the outlook improved almost to the point that being HIV positive might be considered another chronic disease, like diabetes, needing constant treatment and monitoring, but if a person stuck to the program, they could do well over a long term.
The HIV cocktail has improved
The first HIV cocktail regimes in the 1990s were extreme. Various pills needed to be taken many times day and night. The worry was that if the person missed even one dose, that the HIV virus could reproduce rapidly and push them into full-blown AIDS. Also the medications had many side effects, some severe, and not infrequently the virus mutated and became resistant to some of the medications.
Fortunately, the drugs slowly improved. Now, a person on the HIV “cocktail” may need to take only one pill per day. The side effects are much less frequent and less severe, and the chance the virus will become resistant to the medications is also reduced.
The Lancet study estimated that a person diagnosed with HIV today will live about 10 years longer than a person diagnosed and treated in 1996. The life expectancy for a 20 year-old diagnosed now is estimated at 78 years, almost a normal lifespan.
Beyond improved medications, doctors are now treating more aggressively other diseases that may go along with HIV, such as hepatitis C, This is another reason for the longer lifespans. More attention is also being paid to preventive measures, such as smoking cessation.
Important points for HIV positive people
The authors emphasize that starting treatment as soon as possible after diagnosis gives the best outcomes. Unfortunately, many infected people don’t know they are carrying the HIV virus, so they don’t get treated until much later. Everyone at risk should get tested regularly, so if infected, treatment can be started early.
Understand though that while treatments now are much improved and more effective, there is still no cure for HIV, and it is much better to avoid becoming infected in the first place. Safe sex practices are always the smartest approach.
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