World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for monitoring HIV-infected individuals taking combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) in resource-limited settings recommend using CD4+ T cell (CD4) count changes to monitor treatment effectiveness. In practice, however, falling CD4 counts are a consequence, rather than a cause, of virologic failure. Adherence lapses precede virologic failure and, unlike CD4 counts, data on adherence are immediately available to all clinics dispensing cART. However, the accuracy of adherence assessments for predicting future or detecting current virologic failure has not been determined. The goal of this study therefore was to determine the accuracy of adherence assessments for predicting and detecting virologic failure and to compare the accuracy of adherence-based monitoring approaches with approaches monitoring CD4 count changes.
Methodology and Findings
We conducted an observational cohort study among 1,982 of 4,984 (40%) HIV-infected adults initiating non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor-based cART in the Aid for AIDS Disease Management Program, which serves nine countries in southern Africa. Pharmacy refill adherence was calculated as the number of months of cART claims submitted divided by the number of complete months between cART initiation and the last refill prior to the endpoint of interest, expressed as a percentage. The main outcome measure was virologic failure defined as a viral load > 1,000 copies/ml (1) at an initial assessment either 6 or 12 mo after cART initiation and (2) after a previous undetectable (i.e., < 400 copies/ml) viral load (breakthrough viremia). Adherence levels outperformed CD4 count changes when used to detect current virologic failure in the first year after cART initiation (area under the receiver operating characteristic [ROC] curves [AUC] were 0.79 and 0.68 [difference = 0.11; 95% CI 0.06 to 0.16; χ2 = 20.1] respectively at 6 mo, and 0.85 and 0.75 [difference = 0.10; 95% CI 0.05 to 0.14; χ2 = 20.2] respectively at 12 mo; p < 0.001 for both comparisons). When used to detect current breakthrough viremia, adherence and CD4 counts were equally accurate (AUCs of 0.68 versus 0.67, respectively [difference = 0.01; 95% CI −0.06 to 0.07]; χ2 = 0.1, p > 0.5). In addition, adherence levels assessed 3 mo prior to viral load assessments were as accurate for virologic failure occurring approximately 3 mo later as were CD4 count changes calculated from cART initiation to the actual time of the viral load assessments, indicating the potential utility of adherence assessments for predicting future, rather than simply detecting current, virologic failure. Moreover, combinations of CD4 count and adherence data appeared useful in identifying patients at very low risk of virologic failure.
Pharmacy refill adherence assessments were as accurate as CD4 counts for detecting current virologic failure in this cohort of patients on cART and have the potential to predict virologic failure before it occurs. Approaches to cART scale-up in resource-limited settings should include an adherence-based monitoring approach.
Analyzing pharmacy and laboratory records from 1,982 patients beginning HIV therapy in southern Africa, Gregory Bisson and colleagues find medication adherence superior to CD4 count changes in identifying treatment failure.
Globally, more than 30 million people are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Combinations of antiretroviral drugs that hold HIV in check (viral suppression) have been available since 1996. Unfortunately, most of the people affected by HIV/AIDS live in developing countries and cannot afford these expensive drugs. As a result, life expectancy has plummeted and economic growth has reversed in these poor countries since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. Faced with this humanitarian crisis, the lack of access to HIV treatment was declared a global health emergency in 2003. Today, through the concerted efforts of governments, international organizations, and funding bodies, about a quarter of the HIV-positive people in developing and transitional countries who are in immediate need of life-saving, combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) receive the drugs they need.
Why Was This Study Done?
To maximize the benefits of cART, health-care workers in developing countries need simple, affordable ways to monitor viral suppression in their patients—a poor virologic response to cART can lead to the selection of drug-resistant HIV, rapid disease progression, and death. In developed countries, virologic response is monitored by measuring the number of viral particles in patients' blood (viral load) but this technically demanding assay is unavailable in most developing countries. Instead, the World Health Organization recommends that CD4+ T cell (CD4) counts be used to monitor patient responses to cART in resource-limited settings. HIV results in loss of CD4 cells (a type of immune system cell), so a drop in a patient's CD4 count often indicates virologic failure (failure of treatment to suppress the virus). However, falling CD4 counts are often a result of virologic failure and therefore monitoring CD4 counts for drops is unlikely to prevent virologic failure from occurring. Rather, falling CD4 counts are often used only to guide a change to new medicines, which may be even more expensive or difficult to take. On the other hand “adherence lapses”—the failure to take cART regularly—often precede virologic failure, so detecting them early provides an opportunity for improvement in adherence that could prevent virologic failure. Because clinics that dispense cART routinely collect data that can be used to calculate adherence, in this study the researchers investigate whether assessing adherence might provide an alternative, low-cost way to monitor and predict virologic failure among HIV-infected adults on cART.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The Aid for AIDS Disease Management Program provides cART to medical insurance fund subscribers in nine countries in southern Africa. Data on claims for antiretroviral drugs made through this program, plus CD4 counts assessed at about 6 or 12 months after initiating cART, and viral load measurements taken within 45 days of a CD4 count, were available for nearly 2,000 HIV-positive adults who had been prescribed a combination of HIV drugs including either efavirenz or nevirapine. The researchers defined adherence as the number of months of cART claims submitted divided by the number of complete months between cART initiation and the last pharmacy refill before a viral load assessment was performed. Virologic failure was defined in two ways: as a viral load of more than 1,000 copies per ml of blood 6 or 12 months after cART initiation, or as a rebound of viral load to similar levels after a previously very low reading (breakthrough viremia). The researchers' statistical analysis of these data shows that at 6 and 12 months after initiation of cART, adherence levels indicated virologic failure more accurately than CD4 count changes. For breakthrough viremia, both measurements were equally accurate. Adherence levels during the first 3 months of cART predicted virologic failure at 6 months as accurately as did CD4 count changes since cART initiation. Finally, the combination of adherence levels and CD4 count changes accurately identified patients at very low risk of virologic failure.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that adherence assessments (based in this study on insurance claims for pharmacy refills) can identify the patients on cART who are at high and low risk of virologic failure at least as accurately as CD4 counts. In addition, they suggest that adherence assessments could be used for early identification of patients at high risk of virologic failure, averting the health impact of treatment failure and the cost of changing to second-line drug regimens. Studies need to be done in other settings (in particular, in public clinics where cART is provided without charge) to confirm the generalizability of these findings. These finding do not change that fact that monitoring CD4 counts plays an important role in deciding when to start cART or indicating when cART is no longer protecting the immune system. But, write the researchers, systematic monitoring of adherence to cART should be considered as an alternative to CD4 count monitoring in patients who are receiving cART in resource-limited settings or as a way to direct the use of viral load testing where feasible.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050109.
This study is discussed further in a PLoS Medicine Perspective by David Bangsberg
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 an article about adherence to antiretroviral therapy
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on HIV and AIDS in Africa and on providing AIDS drug treatment for millions
The World Health Organization provides information about universal access to HIV treatment (in several languages) and on its recommendations for antiretroviral therapy for HIV infection in adults and adolescents
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also provides information on global efforts to deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic (in English and Spanish)