(Photo: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
When HIV first came to widespread awareness in the early 1980s, a diagnosis was considered a near-death sentence. People often died within a few years of infection as their compromised immune system failed to fend off opportunistic viral and bacterial infections.
But according to a new study published yesterday in the journal PLoS One, the life expectancy among those in treatment for the disease is now approaching that of the general population.
The study, which was led by Hasina Samji at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, estimated the life expectancy of patients on antiretroviral therapy in Canada and the U.S. It found that a 20-year-old diagnosed with HIV today can be expected to live an additional 51.4 years — in other words, into their early 70s. That compares to a life expectancy of 77 for males and 82 for females in the general population in Canada.
The finding is especially impressive when compared to life expectancy a decade ago. In 2000, a person newly diagnosed with HIV could be expected to live only an additional 36 years, to the age of 56.
“I don’t think, in all honesty, that there has been an area of medicine that has undergone (as big of a) revolutionary evolution over our lifetime as HIV has,” Dr. Julio Montaner, the director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence, told CP.
Not all patients with HIV are expected to fare the same, however. Injection drug users and non-white individuals had lower life expectancies, as did those who started treatment with lower CD4 counts (a measure of white blood cells).
“There are many reasons to believe that people living with HIV, although they are now trending towards near-normal life expectancy, may face additional challenges as they age,” Montaner told CP. Those problems could include earlier onset of heart disease and cancer.
"You can have HIV and live a wonderful life," Dr. Ann Stewart, medical director of Casey House, a treatment centre in Toronto, told CP. "But there's certain complications and challenges associated with it as there are with other chronic diseases that you're going to struggle with. So it's not an unclouded sky."