As we strive for an Aids-free generation, we must help people adhere to antiretroviral treatment to stop them developing resistance.
For people living with HIV, antiretroviral treatment (ART) has been a life-saver. ART stops HIV from making copies of itself and prevents HIV from attacking the body’s immune system.
At the end of 2015, 17 million people were taking ART around the world and Aids-related deaths had fallen by 45% since the peak in 2005.
But those who don’t stick to the ART regimen set out by their doctor or health worker might become resistant to the drugs. Resistance occurs when ART regimens are not taken as prescribed, which allows HIV to make copies of itself and increases the risk that the virus will mutate and produce drug-resistant HIV. A person who is on a drug such as Efavirenz can develop resistance after as little as a two-day interruption of treatment.
Globally, HIV drug resistance is on the rise. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that up to 2010, HIV drug resistance levels remained at 7% in developing countries. However, recently, some countries have reported levels at or above 10% among those starting ART, and up to 40% among people restarting ART.
At the beginning of the epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa, there was fear among the international community that people living with HIV in resource-limited settings would not be able to adhere to their treatment due to a lack of education and resources. Would they be able to keep time well enough to take their ART at the same time every day?
However, studies have demonstrated that people in sub-Saharan Africa may be better than people in the west at taking their ART as prescribed. The issue in developing countries is that people lack the resources to get to a clinic and pick up their pills. I’ve worked in Namibia since 2009, and whenever I visit ART clinics, there are long queues stretching out the door. People often have to wait all day and many can’t afford to take this time off work every month.
The stigma associated with being seen waiting in a queue to pick up medication is also a factor in people not adhering to their treatment plans. To avoid this, some people on ARTs travel to a clinic many kilometres away from their town, so they can receive treatment without anyone recognising them. And if you took a whole day off work, borrowed money for the transport and stood in a queue all day, only to learn that the clinic had run out of your pills, what would you do?
ARTs & HIV drug resistance
As the use of ART increases, so does the risk of HIV drug resistance. It’s no surprise, then, that global HIV drug resistance is on the rise, both among those already on ART and those just starting on it.
What could happen if levels of drug resistance reached critical levels? Their ART regimens would no longer be able to stop the HIV in their bodies from making copies of itself and they would then have to be switched to second-line regimens, if available.
But second-line regimens are more expensive. For countries already struggling to provide ART to those who need it, this would is likely to mean that fewer people could be started on ART.
Drug resistance has been a problem since the beginning of the HIV epidemic. In the west the problem was usually limited to individual patients. But in resource-limited settings, if a high percentage of the population develops drug resistance we could see large increases in Aids-related deaths and higher healthcare costs.
We must act now to help people adhere to their treatment plans, before it’s too late. Globally, there has been a huge focus on getting more people on treatment, but the quality of how it’s delivered has fallen by the wayside.
Drug resistance will rise when ART is not delivered in a well thought-out way. That requires strong drug supply systems with zero tolerance for an interruption of ART drug supply, strong and locally appropriate counselling to promote adherence, support for patients who don’t have the resources to access care, re-engagement of patients who have stopped going to the clinics, alternative ways to deliver care such as community-based ART groups, and strong medical record systems.
As we strive to end Aids as a public health threat by 2030, greater attention must be focused on identifying and correcting gaps in the quality of ART service delivery. Many lives depend on it and the time to act is now. If we don’t, we may find ourselves with a new global pandemic of drug-resistant HIV and be faced with a deadlier enemy than we started with.