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  • Treatment of HIV/AIDS. The revised USPHS guidelines. May, 2010

    Posted on May 19th, 2010 admin No comments


    The revised USPHS guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS

    Guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS were first issued by the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in 1998. They have undergone numerous revisions since then; the most recent was in December 2009.

    The first guidelines were issued shortly after potent antiviral medications became available.  We knew very little about how best to use these drugs at that time, and with only a few years experience our knowledge of their adverse effects was understandably limited.

    Perhaps the only reliable information we then had was that individuals with fewer than 200 CD4 lymphocytes received a life saving benefit from their use.

    Despite such limited information the panel that had been convened to write the guidelines made firm recommendations for the use of antiviral drugs in groups of patients for whom evidence of a net benefit was lacking.

    Even in the absence of experience with the newer antiviral agents, at least two probable problems associated with their use could have been anticipated in 1997.   The propensity of just about any microorganism to develop resistance to antimicrobial agents was no mystery.  Nor was it a surprise  that adverse reactions to new drugs appeared as they were used for longer periods.

    As might have been anticipated  healthier HIV infected individuals  have not infrequently had to deal with  both of these problems.

    Why then did the first HIV/AIDS treatment guidelines panel not propose and encourage the conduct of a randomized prospective clinical trial to answer the question of whether immediate or deferred treatment with antiviral drugs could or could not prolong life and improve its quality or made no difference apart from cost?

    Since the problems that were to arise  could have been anticipated, if not their extent,  the guidelines committee must have accepted that whatever evidence existed was sufficient to reassure them that there would be a net benefit to starting treatment at 500 CD4 lymphocytes.

    The most recent revision of the DHHS guidelines now propose, as the first guidelines did, that treatment be initiated at a CD4 count of 500.   A prospective randomized trial that directly addresses the question of when treatment is best initiated has yet to be completed.  In the absence of information from such a trial the committee has relied on evidence from some large retrospective observational studies.

    In the next post John Falkenberg writes about some previous experiences where advice based on results of retrospective analyses of observational data had to be reversed when the results of randomized controlled studies became available.

    I believe the biggest mistake made in 1997 by the guidelines committee was in not responding to the very real  possibilities of dangers associated with early treatment initiation  by encouraging the completion of a prospective randomized trial, such as START, that could by now have reliably provided an answer to the question of whether immediate or deferred treatment is better or worse or makes no difference that is, apart from cost.

    It’s not the benefits of early treatment that are in question. Of course there are benefits, but the question we need an answer to is when in the course of HIV disease the benefits of treatment outweigh the risks.

    Long term exposure to antiretroviral drugs can  have harmful effects.  It can take many years to recognize some of these adverse effects. For example we learned only in the last few months that under certain circumstances neurocognitive function improved in some people who stopped antiviral drugs (ACTG 5170).

    So the challenge is to find out how best to use the drugs.  Put another way, we must find ways to safely minimize exposure to the drugs, which until we have drugs without significant adverse effects, is what determining the optimal time to start treatment is all about.  We don’t know if a person deferring treatment until a CD4 count of 350 will or will not live longer with an overall better or worse quality of life than someone starting at 800 or even 500 CD4s.

    We do know that at 350 CD4s, benefits of treatment far outweigh risks.   But no matter what NIH guidelines committee members may feel, we do not yet have the most reliable evidence that benefits of treatment will outweigh risks when starting at higher numbers.

    The wording of the USPHS guidelines is such that depending on whose vote one goes with, I suppose  might even be interpreted  to mean a recommendation for every HIV positive individual to receive treatment irrespective of CD4 count.

    A letter written to the DHHS panel in 1997 suggesting that a randomized prospective trial be encouraged to provide guidance for individuals with greater than 200 CD4 lymphocytes remained unanswered although received.

    Sadly the repeated changes to the guidelines since their first appearance in 1998 appear to indicate a retreat from evidence-based recommendations.  Maybe this should be stated as a retreat from attempting to find the most reliable evidence on which to base recommendations.  The guidelines panel go to great lengths to reassure us that their recommendations are indeed evidence based.

    But as they recognize, the quality of evidence can vary. They also recognize that evidence of the highest quality is derived from the results of prospective randomized trials.   Yet not only do they not vigorously encourage the completion of such trials, their recommendations actually inhibit enrolment into START which is such a trial.

    Unfortunately the DHHS recommendations while not binding have a huge influence.  Remarkably they are even regarded by some  as setting an ethical standard, so that fears have been expressed that enrolment into START  might be considered unethical as the current guidelines revision recommend starting treatment at 500 CD 4 lymphocytes.

    Thirteen years after the first guidelines were issued, the DHHS panel has now made revisions that continues to threaten enrolment into a randomized controlled trial that will provide clear guidance to HIV positive individuals and their doctors about when to initiate antiviral therapy.

    Surely, when we recognize that reliable evidence is lacking to inform a  very important clinical decision, is it not our obligation to seek the evidence, rather than settle for the  uncertainties  associated with evidence of inferior quality?  This is not only for the benefit of our patients but also to affirm that our stated respect for evidence-based recommendations is more than lip service.

    At this time the DHHS guidelines are the only ones that recommend a start to treatment at 500 CD4 lymphocytes.

    The DHHS guidelines have been of benefit to people with HIV/AIDS.  But on the issue of when to start antiviral therapy they have not best served the interests of HIV positive individuals.

    We need a randomized controlled trial to answer this question, not the votes of a committee.

    I believe that many health care providers would welcome the opportunity to be   able to present an option to their patients with greater than 350 CD4s, to enrol in a study such as START.

    At the end of the day, determining when it’s best to start is not something you vote on. It’s something so important that you nail it down with a trial such as START.

  • Treatment as Prevention: Protecting individual autonomy. May 2010

    Posted on May 18th, 2009 admin 2 comments

    I’m returning to this topic yet again because the French National Commission on HIV/AIDS has now published a statement on treatment as prevention.

    This document discusses treatment as prevention at the individual and the population level together.

    It  places great importance on individual autonomy, which includes the fundamental right individuals have to make decisions on their own behalf.   I have come to see the issues in a somewhat  different way after reading the French document.

    This document can be seen here:

    http://www.cns.sante.fr/spip.php?article296&lang=en

    It is worth mentioning again that the term “treatment as prevention” can be applied to two different situations.

    At an individual level  it refers to prevention of HIV transmission by sexual contact between two individuals. The Swiss statement concentrated on this aspect.

    The term is also applied at a population level, where the goal of treatment as prevention is  the control of the epidemic, even as suggested by some,  a means to end it.

    The principle underlying the proposals to use treatment as prevention in both of these situations is the same.  It is the reduction in infectivity that results from the effect of antiretroviral therapy.

    Unlike the Swiss recommendations that dealt only with transmission between two individuals, the French statement deals with both aspects.

    Treatment as prevention is not the same when applied to individuals as opposed to populations.  For example, transmission between some individuals may be interrupted by treatment without having an effect on the epidemic.

    To have an impact on the epidemic additional factors that do not apply at an individual level have to be considered.

    For example, the number of infected people who must be treated in relation to the total number of people who are infected must be taken into account, if treatment is to have an effect on the epidemic.

    For treatment as prevention to have a greater effect on the epidemic, a larger proportion of infected people must be treated.

    Canadian studies have suggested that the proportion of infected people who must be treated in order to reduce transmission would need to be increased from 50% to 75%.   Transmission would be slowed but not reversed with treatment rates below 50%.

    Thus the percentage of infected people who are treated is related to the extent of the impact treatment will have on the epidemic.

    At an extreme, if the stated objective is to end the epidemic, as has been proposed by some,  the proportion of infected people who would need to be  treated would be so large that it would have to include those who do not need treatment for their own benefit.

    [ Added October 3, 2010:     It appears that there are experts who believe that everybody who is HIV infected, no matter at what stage of their disease would benefit from treatment.  For them, there would be no ethical problem at al.   These experts believe that treatment benefits every HIV infected individual. But the practice of medicine is not a faith-based enterprise, although I imagine individuals holding this belief  probably pay lip service to evidence-based medicine.  As opposed to a belief that everyone will benefit from treatment there is no evidence of the best quality  that for  people with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes, the benefits of antiviral drugs will outweigh their risks.    Hopefully the START trial will provide the evidence needed to help HIV infected individuals and their health care providers make a decision as to when it’s best to start treatment, that will be informed with hard evidence rather than belief based interpretations of data.   The San Francisco Department of Public Health now recommends that all HIV infected individuals receive treatment.  so they are able to  avoid having to deal with the ethical problem that arises  in recommending treatment to people not known to derive a net benefit from doing so as they too rely on their belief that all benefit.   For individuals starting treatment at higher CD4 numbers the harms caused  by the drugs may outweigh their benefits.  Such individuals may choose to receive  treatment in order to make them less infectious, but surely respect for their autonomy means that we must provide them with evidence of the best quality so that their choice is informed, and this also means that where the best evidence is not yet available on when it’s best to start treatment we must tell them that this is the case.    The concern expressed last May about the threat of coercion may have been justified in the light of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s recommendations.  While it is perfectly legitimate and even expected of them, health care providers make recommendations based on their judgement, which in turn depends on the knowledge and experience they have.  This is why we turn to experts.   But their respect for individual autonomy really requires that where evidence of the best quality does not yet exist to justify their recommendation, and where there is no expert consensus  on the issue, that these facts be told to the individual.  A failure to do so in making the recommendation, can be seen as being coercive.  Consenting to the recommendation will  not be fully  informed, and in this way the individual’s autonomy is not respected.]

    I have written about the multitude of problems arising from this situation in previous posts on this topic.  Lurking behind such an extreme proposal is the threat of coercion, and the possibility of an infringement of individual rights. Very disappointingly this aspect has been barely acknowledged in English language discussions of treatment as prevention.

    However if, as I believe,  an additional  goal of treating  infected people is to add a powerful tool to prevent transmission, we are then not stating an objective that would require the participation of individuals who do not themselves need treatment.

    Admittedly, treating only those who need to be treated may not have such a great impact as also treating additional infected people who do not need treatment.  Therefore we must  also intensify and improve  our efforts at targeted prevention education with the promotion of condom use.

    But we will avoid the insuperable problems and threats to personal autonomy associated with  treating individuals who do not need to be treated for their own benefit.

    The goal of treatment as prevention as applied to controlling the epidemic is perhaps better stated in a different way.

    It might be preferable to simply state that the goal is to provide treatment to every individual who needs it.  This goal must therefore be coupled with enhanced efforts to facilitate regular testing.

    If we can achieve this it is likely that not only will the individual benefit, but there will be an impact on the extent of the epidemic.

    There is evidence of a reduction in HIV transmission in areas where antiretroviral treatment has been introduced. .

    When we emphasize that our efforts are to identify infected individuals and make treatment available to all who need it, we eliminate all the problems connected with treating infected individuals who do not need treatment.

    One reason why the French document is so significant is that it stresses the importance of individual autonomy.

    It emphasizes the need to respect individual rights and adds a caution to avoid the temptation to employ  coercive measures in the name of the public good.  Testing is the key to any success of this approach to prevention, but testing must be voluntary and informed. As of course is a decision to receive treatment.

    Here is an excerpt from the French statement that shows the concern for individual autonomy and recognizes that there is a potential threat of the employment of coercive measures.

    ” if screening and massively treating infected persons enables to reduce the epidemic, it could be tempting to consider population compulsory systematic screening and to voice more or less insistent summons for the treatment of persons identified as HIV positive. Should public authorities use all convenient means to implement efficient policies that strengthen screening, they need to be careful not to yield to such fallacious reasoning. The issue of improving screening efficiency surely does not invalidate any of the reasons that have hitherto prevailed for rejecting compulsory screening. Keeping screening hinged on free and informed consent remains a matter of respecting the fundamental right of the person; it is at the same time an obligation even from the public health viewpoint,

    Pursuing a probably completely unworkable attempt to end the epidemic by yearly testing and treating everyone infected as has been suggested by some, is wrong. The problems of feasibility, adherence, resistance, and the threats to individual autonomy cannot be overcome.

    Instead we should:

    Offer treatment to all who need it.

    Facilitate testing, identifying and removing barriers that impede it.

    Intensify and improve our efforts at targeted prevention education.

    Promote condom use and make them available.

    There is a final issue.

    Who needs to be treated?  Certainly everyone with a CD4 count below 200.  Apart from this we do not know, so until we obtain some guidance from prospective randomized studies, it is prudent, in general, to not delay treatment to a CD4 count below 350 as is currently recommended.