The provision of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in resource-limited settings follows a public health approach, which is characterised by a limited number of regimens and the standardisation of clinical and laboratory monitoring. In industrialized countries doctors prescribe from the full range of available antiretroviral drugs, supported by resistance testing and frequent laboratory monitoring. We compared virologic response, changes to first-line regimens, and mortality in HIV-infected patients starting HAART in South Africa and Switzerland.
Methods and Findings
We analysed data from the Swiss HIV Cohort Study and two HAART programmes in townships of Cape Town, South Africa. We included treatment-naïve patients aged 16 y or older who had started treatment with at least three drugs since 2001, and excluded intravenous drug users. Data from a total of 2,348 patients from South Africa and 1,016 patients from the Swiss HIV Cohort Study were analysed. Median baseline CD4+ T cell counts were 80 cells/μl in South Africa and 204 cells/μl in Switzerland. In South Africa, patients started with one of four first-line regimens, which was subsequently changed in 514 patients (22%). In Switzerland, 36 first-line regimens were used initially, and these were changed in 539 patients (53%). In most patients HIV-1 RNA was suppressed to 500 copies/ml or less within one year: 96% (95% confidence interval [CI] 95%–97%) in South Africa and 96% (94%–97%) in Switzerland, and 26% (22%–29%) and 27% (24%–31%), respectively, developed viral rebound within two years. Mortality was higher in South Africa than in Switzerland during the first months of HAART: adjusted hazard ratios were 5.90 (95% CI 1.81–19.2) during months 1–3 and 1.77 (0.90–3.50) during months 4–24.
Compared to the highly individualised approach in Switzerland, programmatic HAART in South Africa resulted in similar virologic outcomes, with relatively few changes to initial regimens. Further innovation and resources are required in South Africa to both achieve more timely access to HAART and improve the prognosis of patients who start HAART with advanced disease.
Comparing HIV treatment in Switzerland, where drug selection is individualized, and South Africa, where a programmatic approach is used, Matthias Egger and colleagues find similar virologic outcomes over two years.
Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) has killed more than 25 million people since the first reported case in 1981, and more than 30 million people 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-infected people died within 10 years of becoming infected. Then, in 1996, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART)—a combination of several antiretroviral drugs—was developed. Now, in resource-rich countries, clinicians provide individually tailored care for HIV-infected people by prescribing combinations of antiretroviral drugs chosen from more than 20 approved medicines. The approach to treatment of HIV in developed countries typically also includes frequent monitoring of the amount of virus in patients' blood (viral load), viral resistance testing (to see whether any viruses are resistant to specific antiretroviral drugs), and regular CD4 cell counts (an indication of immune-system health). Since the implementation of these interventions, the health and life expectancy of people with HIV has improved dramatically in these countries.
Why Was This Study Done?
The history of HIV care in resource-poor countries has been very different. Initially, these countries could not afford to provide HAART for their populations. In 2003, however, governments, international agencies, and funding bodies began to implement plans to increase HAART coverage in developing countries. By December 2006, more than a quarter of the HIV-infected people in low- and middle-income countries who urgently needed treatment were receiving HAART. However, instead of individualized treatment, HAART programs in developing countries follow a public-health approach developed by the World Health Organization. That is, drug regimens, clinical decision-making, and clinical and laboratory monitoring are all standardized. This public-health approach takes into account the realities of under-resourced health systems, but is it as effective as the individualized approach? The researchers addressed this question by comparing virologic responses (the effect of treatment on the viral load), changes to first-line (initial) therapy, and deaths in patients receiving HAART in South Africa (public-health approach) and in Switzerland (individualized approach).
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed data collected since 2001 from more than 2,000 patients enrolled in HAART programs in two townships (Gugulethu and Khayelitsha) in Cape Town, South Africa, and from more than 1,000 patients enrolled in the Swiss HIV Cohort Study, a nationwide study of HIV-infected people. The patients in South Africa, who had a lower starting CD4 cell count and were more likely to have advanced AIDS than the patients in Switzerland, started their treatment for HIV infection with one of four first-line therapies, and about a quarter changed to a second-line therapy during the study. By contrast, 36 first-line regimens were used in Switzerland and half the patients changed to a different regimen. Despite these differences, the viral load was greatly reduced within a year in virtually all the patients and viral rebound (an increased viral load after a low measurement) developed within 2 years in a quarter of the patients in both countries. However, more patients died in South Africa than in Switzerland, particularly during the first 3 months of therapy.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that the public-health approach to HAART practiced in South Africa is as effective in terms of virologic outcomes as the individualized approach practiced in Switzerland. This is reassuring because it suggests that “antiretroviral anarchy” (the unregulated use of antiretroviral drugs, interruptions in drug supplies, and the lack of treatment monitoring), which is likely to lead to the emergence of viral resistance, is not happening in South Africa as some experts feared it might. Thus, these findings support the continued rollout of the public-health approach to HAART in resource-poor countries. Conversely, they also suggest that a more standardized approach to HAART could be taken in Switzerland (and in other industrialized countries) without compromising its effectiveness. Finally, the higher mortality in South Africa than in Switzerland, which partly reflects the many patients in South Africa in desperate need of HAART and their more advanced disease at the start of therapy, suggests that HIV-infected patients in South Africa and in other resource-limited countries would benefit from earlier initiation of therapy.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050148.
The World Health Organization provides information about universal access to HIV treatment (in several languages) and on its recommendations for a public-health approach to antiretroviral therapy for HIV infection
More details on the Swiss HIV Cohort Study and on the studies in Gugulethu and Khayelitsha are available
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, including detailed information about antiretroviral therapy and links to treatment guidelines for various countries
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on HIV and AIDS around the world and on providing AIDS drug treatment for millions