The 2015 WHO recommendation of antiretroviral therapy (ART) for all immediately following HIV diagnosis is partially based on the anticipated impact on HIV incidence in the surrounding population. We investigated this approach in a cluster-randomised trial in a high HIV prevalence setting in rural KwaZulu-Natal. We present findings from the first phase of the trial and report on uptake of home-based HIV testing, linkage to care, uptake of ART, and community attitudes about ART.
Methods and Findings
Between 9 March 2012 and 22 May 2014, five clusters in the intervention arm (immediate ART offered to all HIV-positive adults) and five clusters in the control arm (ART offered according to national guidelines, i.e., CD4 count ≤ 350 cells/μl) contributed to the first phase of the trial. Households were visited every 6 mo. Following informed consent and administration of a study questionnaire, each resident adult (≥16 y) was asked for a finger-prick blood sample, which was used to estimate HIV prevalence, and offered a rapid HIV test using a serial HIV testing algorithm. All HIV-positive adults were referred to the trial clinic in their cluster. Those not linked to care 3 mo after identification were contacted by a linkage-to-care team. Study procedures were not blinded.
In all, 12,894 adults were registered as eligible for participation (5,790 in intervention arm; 7,104 in control arm), of whom 9,927 (77.0%) were contacted at least once during household visits. HIV status was ever ascertained for a total of 8,233/9,927 (82.9%), including 2,569 ascertained as HIV-positive (942 tested HIV-positive and 1,627 reported a known HIV-positive status). Of the 1,177 HIV-positive individuals not previously in care and followed for at least 6 mo in the trial, 559 (47.5%) visited their cluster trial clinic within 6 mo. In the intervention arm, 89% (194/218) initiated ART within 3 mo of their first clinic visit. In the control arm, 42.3% (83/196) had a CD4 count ≤ 350 cells/μl at first visit, of whom 92.8% initiated ART within 3 mo. Regarding attitudes about ART, 93% (8,802/9,460) of participants agreed with the statement that they would want to start ART as soon as possible if HIV-positive. Estimated baseline HIV prevalence was 30.5% (2,028/6,656) (95% CI 25.0%, 37.0%). HIV prevalence, uptake of home-based HIV testing, linkage to care within 6 mo, and initiation of ART within 3 mo in those with CD4 count ≤ 350 cells/μl did not differ significantly between the intervention and control clusters. Selection bias related to noncontact could not be entirely excluded.
Home-based HIV testing was well received in this rural population, although men were less easily contactable at home; immediate ART was acceptable, with good viral suppression and retention. However, only about half of HIV-positive people accessed care within 6 mo of being identified, with nearly two-thirds accessing care by 12 mo. The observed delay in linkage to care would limit the individual and public health ART benefits of universal testing and treatment in this population.
Collins Iwuji and colleagues report implementation indicators and early health outcomes from the first phase of a cluster-randomized trial of immediate antiretroviral therapy to all HIV-positive individuals in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Why Was This Study Done?
A study in stable sexual partners in which one partner was HIV-positive and the other partner was HIV-negative (and both partners had disclosed to each other) showed that if the HIV-positive partner was on antiretroviral therapy, there was a 96% reduction in HIV transmission from the HIV-positive partner to the HIV-negative partner.
However, we do not know if antiretroviral therapy prescribed to HIV-positive individuals in the general population—and where individuals might not disclose their HIV status to sexual partners—would have a similar impact on HIV transmission.
It is important to determine whether prescribing antiretroviral therapy to all HIV-positive individuals is more effective at decreasing HIV transmission than starting individuals on antiretroviral therapy only once their HIV has progressed to the point at which local HIV treatment guidelines currently recommend that HIV-positive individuals start treatment.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
We designed an experiment to investigate whether antiretroviral therapy can reduce new HIV infections in the general population, and piloted the trial in ten communities in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, to check whether starting HIV-positive individuals on antiretroviral therapy directly after diagnosis is feasible and acceptable.
We visited people in their homes, offered HIV rapid tests every six months to all individuals 16 years and older, and referred identified HIV-positive individuals to trial clinics, where they were offered antiretroviral therapy either regardless of their CD4 count (intervention group) or when they were treatment-eligible per current national guidelines (control group).
During the two-year study, we contacted 9,927 (77%) of 12,894 eligible individuals and ascertained the HIV status of 80% of contacted women and 75% of contacted men.
HIV-positive status was ascertained for 1,339 adults who were not previously in care; 1,177 were followed in the trial at least 6 mo after referral, of whom 559 (47.5%) engaged with care within this period.
What Do These Findings Mean?
Our findings show good acceptance of home-based HIV testing in rural South Africa but highlight the challenges in reaching adequate numbers of people to offer HIV tests to, especially among men.
We also found that linkage to care was slower than expected, but amongst those who reached the clinics, uptake of antiretroviral therapy was high, with the majority of individuals achieving good control of the virus.
Our study informs health care professionals, planners, and policy makers about the challenges that need to be addressed to achieve the UNAIDS target of 90% of people living with HIV aware of their HIV diagnosis, 90% on antiretroviral therapy, and 90% achieving good control of the virus, with testing and treatment offered to all.