INTRODUCTION: Routinely monitoring the HIV viral load (VL) of people living with HIV (PLHIV) on anti-retroviral therapy (ART) facilitates intensive adherence counselling and faster ART regimen switch when treatment failure is indicated. Yet standard VL-testing in centralized laboratories can be time-intensive and logistically difficult in low-resource settings. This paper evaluates the outcomes of the first four years of routine VL-monitoring using Point-of-Care technology, implemented by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in rural clinics in Malawi.
METHODS: We conducted a retrospective cohort analysis of patients eligible for routine VL- testing between 2013 and 2017 in four decentralized ART-clinics and the district hospital in Chiradzulu, Malawi. We assessed VL-testing coverage and the treatment failure cascade (from suspected failure (first VL>1000 copies/mL) to VL suppression post regimen switch). We used descriptive statistics and multivariate logistic regression to assess factors associated with suspected failure.
RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: Among 21,400 eligible patients, VL-testing coverage was 85% and VL suppression was found in 89% of those tested. In the decentralized clinics, 88% of test results were reviewed on the same day as blood collection, whereas in the district hospital the median turnaround-time for results was 85 days. Among first-line ART patients with suspected failure (N = 1544), 30% suppressed (VL<1000 copies/mL), 35% were treatment failures (confirmed by subsequent VL-testing) and 35% had incomplete VL follow-up. Among treatment failures, 80% (N = 540) were switched to a second-line regimen, with a higher switching rate in the decentralized clinics than in the district hospital (86% vs. 67%, p < 0.01) and a shorter median time-to-switch (6.8 months vs. 9.7 months, p < 0.01). Similarly, the post-switch VL-testing rate was markedly higher in the decentralized clinics (61% vs. 26%, p < 0.01). Overall, 79% of patients with a post-switch VL-test were suppressed.
CONCLUSIONS: Viral load testing at the point-of-care in Chiradzulu, Malawi achieved high coverage and good drug regimen switch rates among those identified as treatment failures. In decentralized clinics, same-day test results and shorter time-to-switch illustrated the game-changing potential of POC-based VL-testing. Nevertheless, gaps were identified along all steps of the failure cascade. Regular staff training, continuous monitoring and creating demand are essential to the success of routine VL-testing.