This cost-effectiveness study comparing early versus standard antiretroviral treatment (ART) for HIV, based on randomized clinical trial data from Haiti, reveals that the new WHO guidelines for early ART initiation can be cost-effective in resource-poor settings.
In a randomized clinical trial of early versus standard antiretroviral therapy (ART) in HIV-infected adults with a CD4 cell count between 200 and 350 cells/mm3 in Haiti, early ART decreased mortality by 75%. We assessed the cost-effectiveness of early versus standard ART in this trial.
Methods and Findings
Trial data included use of ART and other medications, laboratory tests, outpatient visits, radiographic studies, procedures, and hospital services. Medication, laboratory, radiograph, labor, and overhead costs were from the study clinic, and hospital and procedure costs were from local providers. We evaluated cost per year of life saved (YLS), including patient and caregiver costs, with a median of 21 months and maximum of 36 months of follow-up, and with costs and life expectancy discounted at 3% per annum. Between 2005 and 2008, 816 participants were enrolled and followed for a median of 21 months. Mean total costs per patient during the trial were US$1,381 for early ART and US$1,033 for standard ART. After excluding research-related laboratory tests without clinical benefit, costs were US$1,158 (early ART) and US$979 (standard ART). Early ART patients had higher mean costs for ART (US$398 versus US$81) but lower costs for non-ART medications, CD4 cell counts, clinically indicated tests, and radiographs (US$275 versus US$384). The cost-effectiveness ratio after a maximum of 3 years for early versus standard ART was US$3,975/YLS (95% CI US$2,129/YLS–US$9,979/YLS) including research-related tests, and US$2,050/YLS excluding research-related tests (95% CI US$722/YLS–US$5,537/YLS).
Initiating ART in HIV-infected adults with a CD4 cell count between 200 and 350 cells/mm3 in Haiti, consistent with World Health Organization advice, was cost-effective (US$/YLS <3 times gross domestic product per capita) after a maximum of 3 years, after excluding research-related laboratory tests.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since 1981, and about 33 million people (most of them living in low- and middle-income countries) are now infected with HIV, the virus that 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 infection. Then, in 1996, highly active antiretroviral therapy (ART) became available and, for people living in affluent countries HIV/AIDS became a chronic condition. However, ART was extremely expensive and so a diagnosis of HIV infection remained a death sentence for people living in developing countries. In 2003, this situation was declared a global health emergency, and governments, international agencies, and funding bodies began to implement plans to increase ART coverage in developing countries. In 2009, more than a third of people in low- and middle-income countries who needed ART were receiving it, on the basis of guidelines that were in place at that time.
Why Was This Study Done?
Until recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that all HIV-positive patients with CD4 cell count below 200/mm3 blood or an AIDS-defining illness such as Kaposi's sarcoma should be given ART. Then, in 2009, the CIPRA HT-001 randomized clinical trial, which was undertaken in Haiti, reported that patients who started ART when their CD4 cell count was between 200 and 350 cells/mm3 (“early ART”) had a higher survival rate than patients who started ART according to the WHO guidelines (“standard ART”). As a result, WHO now recommends that ART is started in HIV-infected people when their CD4 cell count falls below 350 cells/mm3. But is this new recommendation cost-effective? Do its benefits outweigh its costs? Policy-makers need to know the cost-effectiveness of interventions so that they can allocate their limited resources wisely. A medical intervention is generally considered cost-effective if it costs less than three times a country's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) per year of life saved (YLS). In this study, the researchers assess the cost-effectiveness of early versus standard ART in the CIPRA HT-001 trial.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used trial data on the use and costs of ART, other medications, laboratory tests, outpatient visits, radiography, procedures, and hospital services to evaluate the costs associated with early ART and standard ART among the 816 CIPRA HT-001 trial participants. The average total costs per patient after a maximum of 3 years treatment were US$1,381 for early ART and US$1,033 for standard ART. These figures dropped to US$1,158 and US$979, respectively, when the costs of research-related tests without clinical benefit were excluded. Patients who received early ART had higher average costs for ART but lower costs for other aspects of their treatment than patients who received standard ART. The incremental cost-effectiveness ratio after 3 years for early ART compared to standard ART was US$3,975/YLS if the costs of research-related tests were included in the calculation. That is, the cost of saving one year of life by starting ART early instead of when the CD4 cell count dropped below 200/mm3 was nearly US$4,000. Importantly, exclusion of the costs of research-related tests reduced the incremental cost-effectiveness ratio of early ART compared to standard ART to US$2,050/YLS.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Because the Haitian GDP per capita is US$785, these findings suggest that, in Haiti, early ART is a cost-effective intervention over a 3-year period. That is, the incremental cost per year of life saved of early ART compared to standard ART after exclusion of research-related tests is less than three times Haiti's per capita GDP. The researchers note that their incremental cost-effectiveness ratios are likely to be conservative because they did not consider the clinical benefits of early ART that continue beyond 3 years—early ART is associated with lower longer-term mortality than standard ART—or the effect of early ART on disability and quality of life. Cost-effectiveness studies now need to be undertaken at different sites to determine whether these findings are generalizable but, for now, this cost-effectiveness study suggests that the new WHO guidelines for ART initiation can be cost-effective in resource-poor settings, information that should help policy-makers in developing countries allocate their limited resources.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001095.
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 information on the HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, and on HIV/AIDS treatment and care (in English and Spanish)
WHO provides information about universal access to AIDS treatment (in English, French and Spanish); its 2010 ART guidelines can be downloaded
More information about the CIPRA HT-001 clinical trial is available
Patient stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert and through the charity website Healthtalkonline
More information about GHESKIO is available from Weill Cornell Global Health