“Do the math!”: Big results for anti-HIV drug proponents

At last, some hope at the end of the AIDS campaign tunnel.

Two studies published in the journal Science last Thursday showed that an aggressive campaign to provide anti-retroviral drugs in Africa improved life expectancy by more than 11 years and reduced the risk of infection for healthy individuals.

But at what price?

Well, that’s the catch. According to the Los Angeles Times, these fantastic results come with a price tag between $500-$900 per patient, pretty hefty for a country with a per capita GDP of only $11,000. Proponents of less costly measures advocate that efforts should be concentrated towards the distribution of condoms, or male circumcision, rather than spending astronomical sums on drugs.

So what is antiretroviral therapy? According to the World Health Organization, it’s “the combination of at least three antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to maximally suppress the HIV virus and stop the progression of HIV disease.” (For more on ARV, click here).

The first study – an economic analysis of a campaign conducted in a South African province among roughly 100, 000 people – concluded that despite the high prices, the strategy was cost-effective, the LA Times reported.

In this case, the antiretroviral therapy (ART) drugs – which the patients take every day for the rest of their lives – were distributed in a number of health clinics in rural areas of the province once a month.

The results are striking. In 2003, before the drugs became available, 29% of residents were HIV positive and half of deaths were caused by AIDS. The average life expectancy was 49. To put things in perspective, that’s how old Helen Hunt, Hugh Bonneville (aka the Earl of Grantham), Nicholas Cage, Mike Meyers, Quentin Tarantino and Michelle Obama are today. (Imagine life without “The Evolution of Mom Dance”… Unthinkable, right?)

By 2011, life expectancy had gone up to just over 60 years – “the most rapid life expectancy gains observed in the history of public health,” Till Barnighausen, senior study author and global health professor at the Harvard School of Public Health told the LA Times.

The LA Times added that the World Health Organization considers medical intervention “’highly cost-effective’ if the cost per year of life saved is less than a nation’s per capita gross domestic product. The program’s ratio was well below South Africa’s 2011 per capita GDP of about $11,000.”

The second study, conducted in the same region from 2004 to 2011, followed roughly 17,000 healthy individuals to assess the rates of HIV infection in areas where ART intervention programs were available.

The results? Healthy people living in areas where ART treatments were available were 38% less likely to contract HIV.

Sometimes, you just have to do the math.

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