PARIS - HIV-positive people in the world's rich countries now live nearly as long as those who don't carry the AIDS-causing virus, as drugs have cut the overall death rate in half, researchers said on Friday.
Anti-retroviral treatment (ART) has cut the death rate from about 18 per 1,000 people between 1999 and 2001 to nine per 1,000 per year in 2009-2011, according to data from 200 clinics in Europe, the United States and Australia.
"These findings provide further evidence of the substantial net benefits of ART," said a study published in The Lancet medical journal.
"With the advent of effective anti-retroviral treatment, the life expectancy for people with HIV is now approaching that seen in the general population." Developed in the mid-1990s, ART drug combinations do not kill the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), but slow its development into full-blown AIDS.
Before the advent of ARTs, which have to be taken for life, people who contracted the virus generally died after a few years, mainly from opportunistic infections and cancers taking advantage of the lowered immune defences.
The study of 50,000 HIV-positive adults found that complications of AIDS, the final immune-compromised stage of infection, were still the most common death cause, at 29 per cent.
This was followed by non-AIDS cancers - mainly lung cancer - at 15 per cent, liver disease with 13 per cent and cardiovascular disease with 11 per cent.
A decline in deaths among HIV-positive people from liver and cardiovascular disease may be due to generally healthier lifestyles - less smoking and drinking, or the use of less toxic ARTs, said the study.
The reasons for a slight increase in non-AIDS cancers, however, were unclear.
"It is very encouraging that death rates are continuing to decrease among HIV-positive people. It shows how effective anti-retroviral treatment has been and continues to be," study author Colette Smith of the University College London told AFP by e-mail.
"However, we must not be complacent. Disappointingly, we found AIDS was still the most common cause of death. We must make every effort to ensure that HIV-positive people are able to keep taking their medication regularly so they can experience the benefits of treatment.