UN HIV declaration must throw a lifeline to people with advanced HIV disease

Gilles Van Cutsem, Leader of the AIDS Working Group and Senior HIV/TB Adviser, MSF
Amanda Banda, HIV/AIDS Advocacy Consultant, MSF

Can we do what needs to be done to stop people dying from HIV/AIDS? Maybe — but only if we pay more attention to the people who are most at risk of dying. World leaders are discussing the next steps in the fight against the disease at the UN High Level Meeting on HIV/AIDS on the 8-10th of June. The political declaration they’re expected to adopt must contain clear and tangible commitments to tackle HIV-related mortality and a specific focus on early detection and treatment of the main killer diseases linked to advanced HIV disease (AHD, or AIDS).

Amanda Banda

The 2021–2026 UNAIDS strategy aims to reduce the number of people dying from HIV/AIDS to 250,000 by 2025, while also rightly placing emphasis on prevention, rights, and social and political determinants of health. Still, nearly 700,000 HIV-related deaths occurred in 2019, despite being in an era of “test and start” with free antiretroviral treatment.

While there has been a 39% reduction of AIDS-related deaths since 2010, progress has stalled in recent years, highlighting that scale-up of testing and antiretroviral treatment alone is not sufficient to end HIV-related deaths. To address this mortality, we need to focus on finding the most at-risk people living with HIV, make sure they have effective access to antiretroviral treatment, and treat their opportunistic infections. Besides tuberculosis, severe fungal and bacterial infections (such as cryptococcal meningitis) remain the primary comorbidities and are also the primary causes of hospitalisation and death among people living with HIV.

A decade ago, AHD was seen mostly among patients who were unaware of their HIV status, often because of a lack of HIV testing and antiretroviral treatment availability. Today, however, in some MSF inpatient facilities, 75% of hospital admissions for advanced HIV are patients who are receiving antiretroviral drugs, often for many years. This suggests that they may have interrupted their treatment and/or developed a resistant form of the virus. Unfortunately, this is not detected and treated early enough for most.

Gilles Van Cutsem

MSF has learnt that the HIV care cascade is not a linear process from testing and early initiation, to consistent drug adherence and viral suppression, but a circular one, with many people needing help to re-engage into care after treatment interruption and/or failure. Studies have shown that nearly 25% of patients will interrupt their treatment at some point and that up to one-third of patients starting or restarting antiretroviral treatment have AHD. What follows is immune suppression, opportunistic diseases, hospitalisation and death. In MSF-supported hospitals in Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Malawi, we witness a 30-40% mortality rate among patients with AHD.

Since the COVID-19 crisis has caused a drop in initiations of antiretroviral treatment and in retention in care, the situation is expected to worsen, and the number of people living with HIV facing tuberculosis and severe bacterial and fungal infections is expected to rise. The deterioration of a patient’s condition brings back the typical complications, putting their life at immediate risk. As antiretroviral treatment no longer suppresses the virus, it goes rampant through their body, allowing opportunistic infections to flare up and once more transmit HIV to their partner or their baby.

In Nsanje District in Malawi, MSF provides mentoring skills to local Ministry of Health staff to diagnose and manage people with advanced HIV. © Isabel Corthier

Certain countries in the West and Central Africa region are especially hard hit in terms of mortality. One-fifth of all AIDS-related deaths, and in children four out of every ten deaths, occur in this region. We should reach out to people living with HIV at risk with immediate and intensified action for early detection and treatment.

The UN High Level Meeting is a unique opportunity to ensure country commitments on these needs. Addressing AHD is key, but there are still important hurdles. Screening for AHD is possible using simple point-of-care[1] diagnostic technologies. This accelerates detection and treatment of the killing infections linked to AIDS and can therefore help to save lives. In Malawi for instance, combining point-of-care screening by lay cadres in health centres and a rapid assessment unit in hospital, allowed significant gain of time in diagnosis and starting treatment, leading to reduced mortality among hospitalised patients.

But many national guidelines do not yet include targeted AHD services. Availability and affordability of the medicines required to implement them is a key challenge in many countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Unfavourable markets with high pricing for certain commodities contributed to countries’ slow progress in adoption of AHD packages of care.

There is an urgent need for a global commitment to accelerate the implementation of a package of care to prevent, detect and treat advanced disease, which includes early voluntary and confidential testing, early treatment initiation, increased enabling measures for continuity and retention, and services that reach out and welcome people back in care. These measures will consequently prevent treatment failure and mortality, and improve early detection of advanced HIV.

Only by recognising the importance of AHD will the UN High Level Meeting declaration curb HIV-related mortality, contributing to removing key obstacles and throwing a lifeline to people with advanced HIV.

[1] Point-of-care (PoC) testing is defined as medical diagnostic testing at or near the time and place of patient care.

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This blog is a place to reflect on our experiences working for access to medicines. For the official MSF Access Campaign website please visit msfaccess.org.