Using data from the ARROW trial, Joanna Lewis and colleagues investigate the CD4 cell count recovery profiles of children infected with HIV starting antiretroviral therapy in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Long-term immune reconstitution on antiretroviral therapy (ART) has important implications for HIV-infected children, who increasingly survive into adulthood. Children's response to ART differs from adults', and better descriptive and predictive models of reconstitution are needed to guide policy and direct research. We present statistical models characterising, qualitatively and quantitatively, patterns of long-term CD4 recovery.
Methods and Findings
CD4 counts every 12 wk over a median (interquartile range) of 4.0 (3.7, 4.4) y in 1,206 HIV-infected children, aged 0.4–17.6 y, starting ART in the Antiretroviral Research for Watoto trial (ISRCTN 24791884) were analysed in an exploratory analysis supplementary to the trial's pre-specified outcomes. Most (n = 914; 76%) children's CD4 counts rose quickly on ART to a constant age-corrected level. Using nonlinear mixed-effects models, higher long-term CD4 counts were predicted for children starting ART younger, and with higher CD4 counts (p<0.001). These results suggest that current World Health Organization–recommended CD4 thresholds for starting ART in children ≥5 y will result in lower CD4 counts in older children when they become adults, such that vertically infected children who remain ART-naïve beyond 10 y of age are unlikely ever to normalise CD4 count, regardless of CD4 count at ART initiation. CD4 profiles with four qualitatively distinct reconstitution patterns were seen in the remaining 292 (24%) children. Study limitations included incomplete viral load data, and that the uncertainty in allocating children to distinct reconstitution groups was not modelled.
Although younger ART-naïve children are at high risk of disease progression, they have good potential for achieving high CD4 counts on ART in later life provided ART is initiated following current World Health Organization (WHO), Paediatric European Network for Treatment of AIDS, or US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. In contrast, to maximise CD4 reconstitution in treatment-naïve children >10 y, ART should ideally be considered even if there is a low risk of immediate disease progression. Further exploration of the immunological mechanisms for these CD4 recovery profiles should help guide management of paediatric HIV infection and optimise children's immunological development.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Worldwide, about 3.3 million children under 15 years old are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. More than 90% of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 600 children become infected with HIV every day, usually acquiring the virus from their mother during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding. HIV gradually reduces the numbers of CD4 lymphocytes in the immune system, leaving infected individuals susceptible to other infections. HIV infection can be kept in check but not cured with antiretroviral therapy (ART)—cocktails of drugs that have to be taken every day throughout life. ART reduces the amount of virus in the blood (viral load), which allows the immune system to recover (long-term immune reconstitution). Unfortunately, ART is very expensive, but concerted international efforts over the past decade mean that about a third of children who need ART are now receiving it, including half a million children in sub-Saharan Africa.
Why Was This Study Done?
World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines recommend initiation of ART at age-related CD4 cell count thresholds based on the risk of short-term disease progression. The guidelines recommend that all HIV-positive children under two years old begin ART as soon they receive a diagnosis of HIV infection. For children aged 2–5 years, ART initiation is recommended once the CD4 count drops below 750 cells/µl blood, whereas for older children the threshold for ART initiation is 350 CD4 cells/µl. Because of improved ART coverage, many more HIV-infected children now survive into adulthood than in the past. It is therefore important to know how the timing of ART initiation in childhood affects long-term immune reconstitution. Unfortunately, although several studies have examined the effect of ART on immune reconstitution in adults, the results of these studies cannot be extrapolated to children because of age-related differences in immune reconstitution. In this cohort-based modelling study, the researchers investigate long-term CD4 recovery in a cohort (group) of HIV-infected children initiating ART in Uganda and Zimbabwe, and present statistical models that predict patterns of long-term CD4 status based on age and CD4 count at ART initiation.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
To investigate long-term CD4 reconstitution in children, the researchers used CD4 counts collected during the ARROW trial, a study designed to investigate monitoring strategies during first-line ART in 1,206 HIV-positive children. In three-quarters of the children, CD4 reconstitution following ART initiation was asymptotic—CD4 counts increased rapidly immediately after ART initiation, then slowed before eventually reaching a constant level of about 80% of the CD4 count expected in an uninfected child of the same age. Using a nonlinear mixed-effects statistical model that fitted this pattern of immune reconstitution, the researchers predicted CD4 trajectories for children starting ART at different ages and with different CD4 counts. Higher long-term counts were predicted for children starting ART earlier and with higher CD4 counts. Thus, to achieve a CD4 count greater than 700 cells/µl at age 20 years, CD4 counts of at least 96 cells/µl, 130 cells/µl, and 557 cells/µl are needed for children aged two, five, and 12 years, respectively, when they initiate ART. Qualitatively distinct reconstitution patterns were seen in the remaining children in the study.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that young HIV-positive, ART-naïve children can achieve high CD4 counts in later life, provided ART is initiated as recommended in the current WHO guidelines. However, the recommended CD4 count thresholds for ART initiation are unlikely to maximize immune reconstitution in treatment-naïve children over ten years old. Rather, these findings suggest that ART initiation should be considered in these older children when their CD4 count is still high—even though they have a low risk of immediate disease progression—in order to achieve higher long-term CD4 levels. The omission of viral load measurements in the researchers' model may limit the accuracy of these findings. Moreover, although the predictions made by the model apply to children who will go on to experience asymptotic recovery, they are less relevant to those with different recovery profiles, who cannot currently be accurately identified. Further exploration of the immunological mechanisms underlying the CD4 recovery profiles described here should improve our understanding of the factors that determine the response of HIV-positive children to ART and provide information to guide the management of HIV infections in children.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001542.
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 and AIDS in Africa and on HIV infection in children (in English and Spanish)
The UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report 2012 provides up-to-date information about the AIDS epidemic and efforts to halt it; the UNAIDS's 2013 Progress Report on the Global Plan provides information on progress towards eliminating new HIV infections among children by 2015
The World Health Organization provides information about universal access to AIDS treatment (in several languages); its 2010 guidelines for ART in infants and children can be downloaded
Information about the ARROW trial is available
Personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS, including stories from young people infected with HIV, are available through Avert, through Nam/aidsmap, and through the charity website Healthtalkonline