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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa has achieved a "stunning" increase in life expectancy in the last three years due to a government push to roll out antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to people with HIV/AIDS, researchers said on Thursday.
The average South African is now likely to live to the age of 60, a study in the Lancet medical journal said, compared with just 56.5 in 2009 when President Jacob Zuma came to power with promises of a new approach to the country's HIV/AIDS burden.
Africa's biggest economy is home to 6 million HIV/AIDS sufferers but under Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, the government was reluctant to provide the life-prolonging drugs, the study said.
Nearly 2 million people are now taking ARVs daily in what is the world's largest ARV programme. That total compares with 912,000 in 2009 and just 235,000 three years before that.
Although overall infection rates have stayed constant at around 10 percent since 2006, the study's authors said such a dramatic increase in life expectancy was unheard-of.
"There are many factors that contribute to life expectancy but the single most important one was the expansion of the ARV treatment programme," said Professor Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa and a member of the Lancet South Africa team.
"That increase in life expectancy is nothing short of stunning. You don't see those kinds of increases in the real world."
Lead researcher Bongani Mayosi from the University of Cape Town singled out Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi for praise in reversing the policies of Mbeki, whose health minister outraged activists by questioning the effectiveness of ARVs and championing the benefits of garlic and beetroot instead.
"We have no doubt that the new administration that came in 2009 was eager to make an improvement on the disastrous record of the first 15 years of the ANC government," Mayosi said.
South Africa still faced formidable challenges however, particularly in reducing huge racial disparities in housing, employment and access to health services, Mayosi said.
Just 10.3 percent of black South Africans, who make up 80 percent of the population, have medical insurance, compared with 70.9 percent for whites, who make up just 10 percent of the overall 52 million population, the study showed. (Editing by Ed Cropley and Jon Hemming)