It may sound strange that a person inflicted with a deadly virus such as HIV can actually help them live longer.

Believe it or not, researchers from the North American AIDS Cohort Collaboration on Research and Design study found that a person diagnosed with HIV at 20 years old or older and on antiretroviral therapy (ART) can expect to live longer than the average life expectancy.

The study found that someone aged 20 or older on ART in the U.S or Canada is now expected to live into their early 70s – a life expectancy that’s approaching that of the general population. However, the study also found that if a 20-year-old is a man, and starts HIV treatment early with a CD4 count at or above 350, they can expect to live an additional 69 years, or to approximately 89 years old, 10-12 years longer than the general population.

Dr. Gary Blick, Chief Medical Officer of World Health Clinicians and co-founder of HIV Equal, says this is clear evidence of the success of newer and improved HIV drugs:

“One of the main reasons for the increase in life expectancy above that of the general population has everything to do with knowing your HIV status…If you are diagnosed with HIV and get in and stay in care, you will get better monitoring and treatment than someone in the general population who might otherwise not seek medical attention. The only sobering fact is that large differences in life expectancy still continue to persist in certain patient sub-groups, such as between MSM and intravenous drug users or other HIV risk groups, as well as between Caucasians and all other races. We need to better understand the specific reasons for these life expectancy differences and improvements”.

How can this actually be?

Doctors say it’s mainly due to the incredible pharmacological advances that have been made in how the virus is treated and managed. “Highly active antiretroviral therapy” have resulted in being able to maintain the infected person’s immune system and therefore prevent the opportunistic infections that resulted in the development of AIDS and led to death. This medication usually involves taking 1-2 tablets a day.

Another reason for the increased life expectancy is that a person infected with HIV goes to the doctor to get their blood checked every 4 months, which can mean they’re more likely to catch other diseases that they wouldn’t have caught had they not seen a doctor.

According to Dr. Pemberton, the people who became dangerously unwell with the disease “are often immigrants who have been infected for years, and present to hospital late with the kind of infections that we no longer see in those on medication.”

This underscores the importance of catching HIV early and getting on treatment as soon as possible.

According to AIDS Map, transmission mostly occurs when people don’t know they have it. When HIV infected people are on medication, they become far less likely to transmit it to others.

While we still haven’t found a cure for HIV/AIDS, we shouldn’t ignore the miraculous advancement western medicine has made in treating people with the disease.

Dr. Pembertion says it best:

“HIV/Aids wards and specialist units have closed simply because there is no longer the volume of patients to fill them. This is a hugely encouraging fact, which would have seemed impossible to those who stood, in the 1980s and 1990s, as friends, family and loved ones faded away while doctors stood by utterly helpless. What is truly startling is the speed with which medicine responded to HIV.”