MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
To some good news, now, about AIDS. It's from the first study to look at how treatment of HIV affects the life expectancies of patients in Africa. The results are much better than experts dared to hope when anti-viral cocktails were first rolled out in the poorest counties. NPR's Richard Knox has the story.
RICHARD KNOX: It wasn't long ago when almost no one in Africa could get the kind of therapy for HIV that's transformed AIDS in rich countries. Researcher Edward Mills of the University of Ottawa remembers those days very well.
Dr. EDWARD MILLS (Researcher, University of Ottawa): Up until 2004, being infected with HIV was a death sentence in Africa. In those days, when somebody would approach a clinic seeking care, you would unfortunately have to, a lot of the time, be turning people away and saying, I'm sorry, there's not much we can do for you. You should go home and prepare for your funeral.
KNOX: Today in Uganda, there are still a lot of people who aren't getting HIV treatment. Eighty thousand are on the waiting list. Just 24,000 are getting the drugs. But enough people have been on treatment long enough, that Mills and his colleagues decided it was time to look at its effect on patients' longevity.
Dr. MILLS: And we found very, very positive results.
KNOX: They calculate that life expectancy among 22,000 people taking HIV drugs is almost as high as it is for Ugandans without HIV. The average life expectancy in Uganda is 55. Not all Ugandans are benefitting equally from treatment. Far fewer men are getting treated, and they're not living as long as women.
Dr. MILLS: Men can expect to live about two-thirds the successful life that women can.
KNOX: That's probably because men are more reluctant to get tested for HIV. And those who do get into treatment start later.
Dr. MILLS: From focus groups that we run with these populations, we're seeing that men are ashamed of what they may or may not have done, and are not accessing care as a result of that.
KNOX: And adolescents have the same death rates as the oldest people on HIV treatment. That's probably because they got infected at birth, and spent most of their childhood without treatment.
But one remarkable thing about Uganda's experience with HIV treatment is that most people do so well, even though virtually all of them start taking the drugs after they already have AIDS - which is much later than most patients in developed countries. Dr. Deborah Cotton says this exceeds all expectations.
Dr. DEBORAH COTTON (Boston University School of Medicine): No one really foresaw how effective these drugs would be and how many people could be treated late in infection and still have their immune function largely restored. We knew it was good. It turns out to be great.
KNOX: Cotton, a Boston University AIDS specialist, thinks news like this will reinvigorate the drive to get more people into treatment in developing countries, despite tough times for funding.
Dr. COTTON: I think it will be a shot in the arm. This has always been a motivated group of people both patients and providers. But I think for many of us who've spend our lives working in HIV, we're very committed to seeing this end of this disease in our lifetime. And some of us are getting older.
KNOX: While this study shows antiviral treatment gives patients a chance at a normal lifespan, other recent studies demonstrate it also reduces the risk that they'll infect someone else. So treating HIV can also slow its spread.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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