Comparing mortality rates between patients starting HIV treatment and the general population in four African countries, Matthias Egger and colleagues find the gap decreases over time, especially with early treatment.
Mortality in HIV-infected patients who have access to highly active antiretroviral therapy (ART) has declined in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is unclear how mortality compares to the non-HIV–infected population. We compared mortality rates observed in HIV-1–infected patients starting ART with non-HIV–related background mortality in four countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Methods and Findings
Patients enrolled in antiretroviral treatment programmes in Côte d'Ivoire, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe were included. We calculated excess mortality rates and standardised mortality ratios (SMRs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Expected numbers of deaths were obtained using estimates of age-, sex-, and country-specific, HIV-unrelated, mortality rates from the Global Burden of Disease project. Among 13,249 eligible patients 1,177 deaths were recorded during 14,695 person-years of follow-up. The median age was 34 y, 8,831 (67%) patients were female, and 10,811 of 12,720 patients (85%) with information on clinical stage had advanced disease when starting ART. The excess mortality rate was 17.5 (95% CI 14.5–21.1) per 100 person-years SMR in patients who started ART with a CD4 cell count of less than 25 cells/µl and World Health Organization (WHO) stage III/IV, compared to 1.00 (0.55–1.81) per 100 person-years in patients who started with 200 cells/µl or above with WHO stage I/II. The corresponding SMRs were 47.1 (39.1–56.6) and 3.44 (1.91–6.17). Among patients who started ART with 200 cells/µl or above in WHO stage I/II and survived the first year of ART, the excess mortality rate was 0.27 (0.08–0.94) per 100 person-years and the SMR was 1.14 (0.47–2.77).
Mortality of HIV-infected patients treated with combination ART in sub-Saharan Africa continues to be higher than in the general population, but for some patients excess mortality is moderate and reaches that of the general population in the second year of ART. Much of the excess mortality might be prevented by timely initiation of ART.
Please see later in the article for Editors' Summary
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has killed more than 25 million people since 1981 and more than 30 million people (22 million in sub-Saharan Africa alone) are now infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. HIV destroys immune system cells (including CD4 cells, a type of lymphocyte), leaving infected individuals susceptible to other infections. Early in the AIDS epidemic, most HIV-positive people died within ten years of infection. Then, in 1996, highly active antiretroviral therapy (ART)—combinations of powerful antiretroviral drugs—was developed and the life expectancy of HIV-infected people living in affluent countries improved dramatically. Now, in industrialized countries, all-cause mortality (death from any cause) among HIV-infected patients treated successfully with ART is similar to that of the general population and the mortality rate (the number of deaths in a population per year) among patients with HIV/AIDS is comparable to that among patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions.
Why Was This Study Done?
Unfortunately, combination ART is costly, so although HIV/AIDS quickly became a chronic disease in industrialized countries, AIDS deaths continued unabated among the millions of HIV-infected people living in low- and middle-income countries. Then, in 2003, governments, international agencies and funding bodies began to implement plans to increase ART coverage in developing countries. By the end of 2007, nearly three million people living with HIV/AIDS in these countries were receiving ART—nearly a third of the people who urgently need ART. In sub-Saharan Africa more than 2 million people now receive ART and mortality in HIV-infected patients who have access to ART is declining. However, no-one knows how mortality among HIV-infected people starting ART compares with non-HIV related mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. This information is needed to ensure that appropriate health services (including access to ART) are provided in this region. In this study, the researchers compare mortality rates among HIV-infected patients starting ART with non-HIV related mortality in the general population of four sub-Saharan countries.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers obtained estimates of the number of HIV-unrelated deaths and information about patients during their first two years on ART at five antiretroviral treatment programs in the Côte d'Ivoire, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe from the World Health Organization Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project and the International epidemiological Databases to Evaluate AIDS (IeDEA) initiative, respectively. They then calculated the excess mortality rates among the HIV-infected patients (the death rates in HIV-infected patients minus the national HIV-unrelated death rates) and the standardized mortality rate (SMR; the number of deaths among HIV-infected patients divided by the number of HIV-unrelated deaths in the general population). The excess mortality rate among HIV-infected people who started ART when they had a low CD4 cell count and clinically advanced disease was 17.5 per 100 person-years of follow-up. For HIV-infected people who started ART with a high CD4 cell count and early disease, the excess mortality rate was 1.0 per 100 person-years. The SMRs over two years of ART for these two groups of HIV-infected patients were 47.1 and 3.4, respectively. Finally, patients who started ART with a high CD4 cell count and early disease who survived the first year of ART had an excess mortality of only 0.27 per 100 person-years and an SMR over two years follow-up of only 1.14.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that mortality among HIV-infected people during the first two years of ART is higher than in the general population in these four sub-Saharan countries. However, for patients who start ART when they have a high CD4 count and clinically early disease, the excess mortality is moderate and similar to that associated with diabetes. Because the researchers compared the death rates among HIV-infected patients with estimates of national death rates rather than with estimates of death rates for the areas where the ART programs were located, these findings may not be completely accurate. Nevertheless, these findings support further expansion of strategies that increase access to ART in sub-Saharan Africa and suggest the excess mortality among HIV-infected patients in this region might be largely prevented by starting ART before an individual's HIV infection has progressed to advanced stages.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000066.
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
HIV InSite has comprehensive information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS including HIV and AIDS in Africa, providing AIDS drug treatment for millions, and on the stages of HIV infection
The World Health Organization provides information about universal access to HIV treatment and about the Global Burden of Disease project (in several languages)
More information about the International epidemiological Databases to evaluate AIDS initiative is available on the IeDEA Web site