Study Finds Rising Life Expectancy for South African HIV Patients

Analyzing life expectancy data from over 101,000 people in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Harvard School of Public Health professor Till W. Bärnighausen and his coworkers have documented one of the largest increases in a region’s life expectancy in history. Their findings were reported in the scholarly journal “Science” and published online last Friday.

The researchers found that life expectancy in the KwaZulu-Natal area has risen steeply, from 49.2 years in 2004 to 60.5 years in 2011. Those years span the period when antiretroviral therapy, a program of treatment also known as ART that is targeted at suppressing the progression of the human immunodeficiency virus, became available through public clinics in the region following a period of at least three years when life expectancy had been steadily falling.

Bärnighausen, an associate professor of Global Health at the School of Public Health, said the only other times when researchers have “observed such rapid increases [in life expectancy] were after the influenza epidemic of 1918 or when the plague disappeared in Europe.”

In 2003, the South African region had a 22 percent rate of HIV infection among its inhabitants, which Bärnighausen called “already extremely high.” But from 2003 to 2011, the portion of infected individuals rose to 30 percent.

“It’s good news that the prevalence is increasing,” said Bärnighausen, because even though there are more carriers of the virus, the higher rate of infection implies that “people who are HIV infected are now living longer.”

As the length of life increases in one age group, he said, the percentage of people who are infected with HIV also grows.

Bärnighausen said he thinks this study could have important political implications on the funding for HIV relief throughout all of Sub-Saharan Africa, where countries like Swaziland and Lesotho have national HIV infection rates of above 20 percent.

“Such evidence is valuable because it is proof that these efforts are having the impact that we couldn’t have hoped they would have,” Bärnighausen said. “Its one of the most worthwhile investments we can make in health at this point in time.”

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