You don't need to be signed in to read BMJ Blogs, but you can register here to receive updates about other BMJ products and services via our site.

HIV retention in care

Health vulnerability of peri-natally HIV-infected youth: a growing problem throughout the world

3 May, 17 | by Leslie Goode, Blogmaster

Mother-to-child, or ‘vertical’, transmission of HIV is not just a problem for developing countries; even in countries like the US and the UK, peri-natal transmission has probably not been eliminated.  But, with routine ‘opt-out’ ante-natal testing (BHIVA guidelines on HIV testing), cases are increasingly likely to involve births that have taken place overseas or before parental diagnosis (CHIVA guidelines on child testing) – cases that, for various reasons, may be difficult for health services to access (Editorial: ‘Don’t Forget the Children’ (STI)). Yet, even with such events becoming less frequent, and the increasing survival of peri-natally HIV-infected youth (PHIVY) beyond infancy, there remains the problem of managing those already infected, as they transition, in growing numbers, from childhood into adolescence and young adulthood. 

               Such problems are very considerable, according to Nailan & Ciaranello (N&C) – especially for adolescents (13-17yrs) and young adults (18-30yrs).  This recent study offers an analysis of data of PHIVY aged 7-30 years from two cohort studies in the US, the Pediatric HIV/AIDS Cohort Study (PHACS) and the International Maternal Pediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials study (IMPAACT).  As compared with the younger group (7-13 yrs), adolescents (13-18yrs) and young adults (18-30yrs) are likely to spend considerably more time with inadequate viral suppression (5% and 18% vs 2% with CD4 count <200/µL; 30% and 44% vs 22% with a viral load of 400 copies/mL), and to suffer correspondingly greater mortality (c.1 per 100 person-years amongst young adults) as well as HIV related events (c. 2 and 4 per 100 py. for CDC C and B category events amongst 18-30 yrs; c. 1 and 3 per 100 py. for CDC C and B category events amongst 13-18yrs).  The authors attribute inadequate viral suppression, and high mortality/morbidity, to poor adherence and retention in care. 

               The vulnerability of PHIVY as a group to poor health outcomes is not a problem unique to the US.  In the UK c.1,950 PHIVY are monitored through the Collaborative HIV Pediatric Study (CHIPS) cohort, and the data indicate comparable problems of inadequate viral suppression (around one in ten (CHIVA guidelines on transition)).  In some developing countries the health problems of this group are still more evident.  De Matos & dal Fabbro (STI), analysing the data for a cohort of 78 patients, aged 11-15 in 2009, from a municipality in Brazil, report five deaths, amongst other serious health events.  More generally, the UNAIDS 2016 Report (The ‘life-cycle’ approach (STI/blogs) points, in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, to the recent tripling in peri-natally infected 15-19 yr olds who now account for 40% of all HIV-infected 15-19 yr olds in the region.  Not only does poor adherence pose problems for PHIVY themselves; Nailan & Ciaranello also draw attention to the danger they represent for society at large, given rates of pregnancy and risky sex that appear no lower than in the general population, along with heightened transmission risk resulting from poor viral suppression, and, in some cases, emerging drug resistance.

The PrEP ‘care continuum/cascade’: how would it look?

8 Mar, 17 | by Leslie Goode, Blogmaster

We take for granted the value of the care continuum (or ‘cascade’), now increasingly seen as the key measure of health system response to HIV (Cassell (STIs editorial)).   The application of this model to HIV has provided a benchmark for evaluation in contexts as diverse as Moscow (Wirtz & Beyrer (STIs)), South Africa (Schwartz & Baral (STIs)) or the Netherlands (van Veen & van der Sande (STIs)).   But could the same model also offer a means of evaluation in the case of other complex sexual health interventions such as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis)?

An on-line soon-to-be-published paper by Nunn & Chan (N&C), building on an earlier attempt by Kelley & Rosenberg (K&R), does precisely this.  An important difference from the earlier paper seems to be the more concrete definition of a larger number of steps (nine as against five) – especially in the central area of ‘uptake’ and engagement in care.  Here K&R define three stages: ‘need for awareness of PrEP and willingness to use it’, ‘need for good access to healthcare’, and ‘need for a prescription for PrEP.  N&C replace these with a more concrete conceptualization of the process in five stages involving: an occasion where PrEP access is facilitated (4); an appointment arising from that occasion where the assessment is performed (5); the prescription of PrEP, where indicated (6); the actual initiation of PrEP (i.e. when the client starts taking the pills) (7).  Also important is N&C’s substitution of two final steps – adherence (8)) then retention (9) for K&R’s single final step of ‘adherence’.  N&C point out that, whereas, with ART, ‘adherence’ is once-and-for-all and secures the ultimate goal of viral suppression, in the case of PrEP, we can envisage multiple trajectories depending on whether PrEP continues to be indicated (e.g. the client may no longer be exposed to risk).  Finally, K&R’s first step – ‘identifying at risk MSM’ – gives way to three: identifying at risk individuals (1), enhancing HIV awareness (2), enhancing PrEP awareness (3).

Is this nine-stage definition of a PrEP cascade overly “complex” (EECAAC2018)?

Answering such a question requires us to reflect on the function that the ‘cascade model’ is called upon to perform.  If the model divides up the total course of an intervention into a series of staged tasks, this is presumably because the health benefit depends on the completion of the whole intervention, yet the accomplishment of each step is necessary to the achievement of subsequent ones.  The idea of the cascade can provide a fair way of evaluating the progress of an intervention before its potential health benefits have been delivered – and can also identify the precise points at which the intervention is failing (i.e. where clients become ‘disengaged’).

It follows that each step should correspond to a potential outcome that is not inferable from previous or later outcomes but is worthy of independent evaluation.  If everyone who accesses PrEP (4) also attends an appointment at which suitability of PrEP is discussed (5), or everyone who adheres to PrEP (8) is also retained in PrEP (9), then steps (4) and (5), or steps (8) and (9), can be merged.  This is not stated in so many words by the authors of the model.  However, I would assume that it must lie at the basis of their thinking.

UNAIDS 2016 Report: How a ‘life-cycle’ approach can help the world ‘get on the fast track’ to HIV prevention

7 Dec, 16 | by Leslie Goode, Blogmaster

‘Get on the Fast Track: a Life-cycle Approach to HIV’ is the latest UNAIDS report, following on from the UN Assembly’s 2016 declaration of commitment to ‘Fast Track’ goals for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The major theme of the ‘life-cycle’ appears to owe much to the findings of the South African CAPRISA study – above all, the idea of a transmission cycle between younger (25 year-old) women and older (>25 year-old) men.  Broadly, phylogenetic analysis reveals that the prevailing pattern of transmission is as follows.  Younger women appear to get infected through casual relationships with considerably older men, who have, in turn, been infected by their longer-term partners; in time, the younger women grow up and form longer-term relationships – and the cycle is repeated.  The former group – younger (≤25 year-old) women – appear to be more vulnerable to infection than men of the equivalent age due to complex social factors, and have recently seen only c. 6% declines in annual incidence; older (>25 year-old) men have incidence rates that have remained obstinately high despite all recent efforts to reduce them.  These are best explained by poor rates of testing, integration into treatment, and viral suppression making them a potential risk to non-HIV-infected partners.

Diagnosing a problem is one thing; framing the solution quite another.  In case of the younger women, the dominant factors appear to be structural and societal – e.g. gender inequalities.  These are difficult to address without major social and political change.  The authors suggest a number of prevention tools, including sexual education in schools, the introduction of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and social transfers.  However, recent trials of PrEP in sub-Saharan Africa do not bode well for this intervention (STI/blogs/’Failed PrEP trial’; STI/blogs/‘Another failed PrEP trial’); while the evidence for the effectiveness of sexuality education and ‘social transfers’ is far from conclusive (School-based Sexuality Programmes/STI/blogs; STI/Galarraga & Sosa-Rubi; STI/Minnis & Padian; STI/Khan & Khan).  However, in the case of the other group – i.e. older men – the obstacles to HIV prevention (poor rates of testing and viral suppression) may be less intractable, and the report proposes a number of very practical measures that could help, including: distribution of self-test kits through female partners attending ante-natal clinics (STI/blogs/’Partner-delivered STI testing’); simplifying ART regimens so individuals have to take just one tablet a day; shifting from CD4 count testing to viral load testing.

The report also has much to say about other phases of the life-cycle, as well as about ‘key populations’ (estimated 45% of new infections).  Regarding the latter, the authors report the stability, or even rise, in new infections amongst sex-workers, drug-users and MSM. They emphasize the negative impact of criminalization of key populations and same-sex relations (73 countries) (see STI/blog/’HIV criminalization’/; STI/blog/’Health workers violate human rights’), the very low levels of domestic funding (on average, only 12% of total spending on MSM prevention), and the relatively young age of many in the ‘key populations’.  The authors recommend ‘comprehensive’ programmes for these populations incorporating access to a range of health care programmes, such as the Red Umbrella programme for sex workers in South African, and the ‘Targeted Strategy Plan’ for the transgender population in Lima, Peru.


Inadequacy of ‘treatment as prevention’ strategy for combating HIV in young US MSM

23 Feb, 16 | by Leslie Goode, Blogmaster

The secret of containing the HIV epidemic is the successful engagement of key populations, we are told. In the case of the US that evidently includes young MSM (YMSM), amongst others.  The scale of the task that confronts public health interventions aimed at prevention in this group is brought out in a recent study by Wilson & Hightow-Weidmann  (W&H) who investigate the behavioural and social correlates of not achieving virological suppression.

If we take the HIV-infected population of the US as a whole, the relative impact on HIV onward transmission of the segment of the population that is infected, but not virologically suppressed (VL+), is critical to the control of the epidemic.  This is on account of the large proportion of total transmissions attributable to it.  One recent modeling study discussed in this blog (Skarbinski & Mermin {STI/blogs) (S&M)) has estimated the proportion of onward transmission attributable to VL+ at 61.3%, as against to 30.2% attributable to the undiagnosed.  (This model also takes account of the greater HIV infectivity of the non-virologically suppressed, through the impact of this is debated (Increased HIV infectivity (STIs/blog)).

So one can imagine the impact on onward transmission of failure to achieve virological suppression among YMSM, given that the proportion of HIV diagnosed who are VL+ is estimated by W&H at c.70%.  Further to this, W&H consider a factor that contributes an additional importance to the low level of viral suppression.  The headline statistic of their study is that the VL+ are considerably more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior than the rest.  Data obtained from the 20 US adolescent clinics that feature in the study show rates of condomless anal intercourse (CAI) for VL+ at 54.7%, as against 44.4% for VL-, and rates of serodiscordant CAI at 34.9%, as against 25%.  Other correlates of being VL+ are drug abuse, daily alcohol use and unemployment, suggesting a pattern or relative social marginalization that would tend to make this group harder to engage.

In their conclusions, W&H highlight the inadequacies of treatment as prevention as the sole risk reduction method.  A more underlying issue would seem to be retention in care and engagement with services, for socially marginalized populations.

Sherer (STIs) analyses the structural factors which make this particularly a problem for the US.  Access to sexual health services has been improved by the Affordable Care Act.  However, there remains considerable debate about how this will affect publically funded STD clinics which seem to have been financially squeezed in recent years.  Also about what role, if any, these clinics will continue to play in the US health system and what the implications of this will be for the accessibility of sexual health services for the socially marginalized (Mettenbrink & Cornelis (STIs); Stephens & Berstein (STIs); Hoover & Gift; Bocour & Shepard).

Can financial incentives help address the problem of HIV lost-to-follow-up in the US?

21 Apr, 15 | by Leslie Goode, Blogmaster

An article by Skarbinski & Mermin, discussed in my recent blog, Skarbinski & Mermin (STI/blogs), throws into sharp light the problem of the 45.2% of the HIV/AIDS infected population who are diagnosed but lost to follow-up.  According to their estimate this group are responsible for 61.3% of transmissions.  Various local attempts have been made to address this problem through more “wrap-around” approaches to health care (Bocour & Less (STI/blog)), or through computer assisted self-interviewing (Dombrowski & Golden (STI).  Another approach is the use of financial incentives.  Relatively small-scale and local experiments in various forms of conditional cash transfer have been described by a number of studies recently featured in STIs.  These have aimed, for example, to reduce STIs and pregnancy among Latino youth in San Francisco (Minnis & Padian (STI)), to encourage HIV-infected men to bring their wives for testing in Pakistan (Khan & Khan (STI), to incentivize villagers to remain HIV-free in Lesotho (Bjoerkman-Nyqvist & Svensson (STI)), or to promote syphilis testing amongst indigenous groups in Edmonton, Canada (Gratrix & Talbot (STI)).

Yet what role could financial incentives play in the broader context of mainstream HIV management in the US?  Could they help to address the problem of retention in HIV care across the range of HIV care settings?

A recent US study, HPTN 065 (TLC-Plus) reported at the 2015 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) addresses this very question.  It involved two-year RCT in a total of 37 testing sites in Bronx and Washington DC., randomized to an intervention and a control arm.  The intervention offered incentives for both linkage-to-care, and viral suppression.  For linkage-to-care, the incentive consisted in the issue to HIV diagnosed of a $25 coupon redeemable when the participant returned to have blood taken for laboratory tests, and a $100 coupon redeemable when he/she returned for test results and to discuss a long-term care plan.  For viral suppression, it took the form of the issue of a $70 gift card to patients taking medication at the end of every three months if they had an undetectable viral load.  Over the duration of the trial, 1,061 coupons were given for linkage-to-care, and 40,000 gift cards were dispensed to 9,153 patients for viral suppression.

Disappointingly, no overall increase was observed in intervention compared to control settings, either in linkage-to-care or in the proportion of patients achieving viral suppression.  However, the intervention brought significant improvements in viral suppression and continuity of care (completion of four out of five possible visits for tests in last 15 months) within certain specific care settings.  In particular, these were: care settings where <65% of the patients were achieving viral suppression at the start of the study (improvements of 10% overall, 13% as measured in the last three months of the study); small-scale care settings (improvements of 13% as measured in the last three months, and of 19% overall in continuity of care).  The investigators conclude that there may be a role for financial incentives in specific health care settings.

Sexually Transmitted Infections blog

Sexually Transmitted Infections

Discussion and suggestion space for readers of STIs.
Visit site

Creative Comms logo

Latest from Sexually Transmitted Infections

Latest from Sexually Transmitted Infections