Many mathematical models have investigated the impact of expanding access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) on new HIV infections. Comparing results and conclusions across models is challenging because models have addressed slightly different questions and have reported different outcome metrics. This study compares the predictions of several mathematical models simulating the same ART intervention programmes to determine the extent to which models agree about the epidemiological impact of expanded ART.
Methods and Findings
Twelve independent mathematical models evaluated a set of standardised ART intervention scenarios in South Africa and reported a common set of outputs. Intervention scenarios systematically varied the CD4 count threshold for treatment eligibility, access to treatment, and programme retention. For a scenario in which 80% of HIV-infected individuals start treatment on average 1 y after their CD4 count drops below 350 cells/µl and 85% remain on treatment after 3 y, the models projected that HIV incidence would be 35% to 54% lower 8 y after the introduction of ART, compared to a counterfactual scenario in which there is no ART. More variation existed in the estimated long-term (38 y) reductions in incidence. The impact of optimistic interventions including immediate ART initiation varied widely across models, maintaining substantial uncertainty about the theoretical prospect for elimination of HIV from the population using ART alone over the next four decades. The number of person-years of ART per infection averted over 8 y ranged between 5.8 and 18.7. Considering the actual scale-up of ART in South Africa, seven models estimated that current HIV incidence is 17% to 32% lower than it would have been in the absence of ART. Differences between model assumptions about CD4 decline and HIV transmissibility over the course of infection explained only a modest amount of the variation in model results.
Mathematical models evaluating the impact of ART vary substantially in structure, complexity, and parameter choices, but all suggest that ART, at high levels of access and with high adherence, has the potential to substantially reduce new HIV infections. There was broad agreement regarding the short-term epidemiologic impact of ambitious treatment scale-up, but more variation in longer term projections and in the efficiency with which treatment can reduce new infections. Differences between model predictions could not be explained by differences in model structure or parameterization that were hypothesized to affect intervention impact.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Following the first reported case of AIDS in 1981, the number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, increased rapidly. In recent years, the number of people becoming newly infected has declined slightly, but the virus continues to spread at unacceptably high levels. In 2010 alone, 2.7 million people became HIV-positive. HIV, which is usually transmitted through unprotected sex, destroys CD4 lymphocytes and other immune system cells, leaving infected individuals susceptible to other infections. Early in the AIDS epidemic, half of HIV-infected people died within eleven years of infection. Then, in 1996, antiretroviral therapy (ART) became available, and, for people living in affluent countries, HIV/AIDS gradually became considered a chronic condition. But because ART was expensive, for people living in developing countries HIV/AIDS remained a fatal condition. Roll-out of ART in developing countries first started in the early 2000s. In 2006, the international community set a target of achieving universal ART coverage by 2010. Although this target has still not been reached, by the end of 2010, 6.6 million of the estimated 15 million people in need of ART in developing countries were receiving ART.
Why Was This Study Done?
Several studies suggest that ART, in addition to reducing illness and death among HIV-positive people, reduces HIV transmission. Consequently, there is interest in expanding the provision of ART as a strategy for reducing the spread of HIV (“HIV treatment as prevention"), particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where one in 20 adults is HIV-positive. It is important to understand exactly how ART might contribute to averting HIV transmission. Several mathematical models that simulate HIV infection and disease progression have been developed to investigate the impact of expanding access to ART on the incidence of HIV (the number of new infections occurring in a population over a year). But, although all these models predict that increased ART coverage will have epidemiologic (population) benefits, they vary widely in their estimates of the magnitude of these benefits. In this study, the researchers systematically compare the predictions of 12 mathematical models of the HIV epidemic in South Africa, simulating the same ART intervention programs to determine the extent to which different models agree about the impact of expanded ART.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers invited groups who had previously developed mathematical models of the epidemiological impact of expanded access to ART in South Africa to participate in a systematic comparison exercise in which their models were used to simulate ART scale-up scenarios in which the CD4 count threshold for treatment eligibility, access to treatment, and retention on treatment were systematically varied. To exclude variation resulting from different model assumptions about the past and current ART program, it was assumed that ART is introduced into the population in the year 2012, with no treatment provision prior to this, and interventions were evaluated in comparison to an artificial counterfactual scenario in which no treatment is provided. A standard scenario based on the World Health Organization's recommended threshold for initiation of ART, although unrepresentative of current provision in South Africa, was used to compare the models. In this scenario, 80% of HIV-infected individuals received treatment, they started treatment on average a year after their CD4 count dropped below 350 cells per microliter of blood, and 85% remained on treatment after three years. The models predicted that, with a start point of 2012, the HIV incidence would be 35%–54% lower in 2020 and 32%–74% lower in 2050 compared to a counterfactual scenario where there was no ART. Estimates of the number of person-years of ART needed per infection averted (the efficiency with which ART reduced new infections) ranged from 6.3–18.7 and from 4.5–20.2 over the periods 2012–2020 and 2012–2050, respectively. Finally, estimates of the impact of ambitious interventions (for example, immediate treatment of all HIV-positive individuals) varied widely across the models.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Although the mathematical models used in this study had different characteristics, all 12 predict that ART, at high levels of access and adherence, has the potential to reduce new HIV infections. However, although the models broadly agree about the short-term epidemiologic impact of treatment scale-up, their longer-term projections (including whether ART alone can eliminate HIV infection) and their estimates of the efficiency with which ART can reduce new infections vary widely. Importantly, it is possible that all these predictions will be wrong—all the models may have excluded some aspect of HIV transmission that will be found in the future to be crucial. Finally, these findings do not aim to indicate which specific ART interventions should be used to reduce the incidence of HIV. Rather, by comparing the models that are being used to investigate the feasibility of “HIV treatment as prevention," these findings should help modelers and policy-makers think critically about how the assumptions underlying these models affect the models' predictions.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001245.
This study is part of the July 2012 PLoS Medicine Collection, Investigating the Impact of Treatment on New HIV Infections
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
NAM/aidsmap provides basic information about HIV/AIDS and summaries of recent research findings on HIV care and treatment
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV/AIDS treatment and care, on HIV treatment as prevention, and on HIV/AIDS in South Africa (in English and Spanish)
The World Health Organization provides information about universal access to AIDS treatment (in English, French, and Spanish); its 2010 ART guidelines can be downloaded
The HIV Modelling Consortium aims to improve scientific support for decision-making by coordinating mathematical modeling of the HIV epidemic
Patient stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert; the charity website Healthtalkonline also provides personal stories about living with HIV, including stories about taking anti-HIV drugs and the challenges of anti-HIV drugs