The viral load monitoring cascade in a resource-limited setting: A prospective multicentre cohort study after introduction of routine viral load monitoring in rural Lesotho
INTRODUCTION: For HIV-positive individuals on antiretroviral therapy (ART), the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends routine viral load (VL) monitoring. We report on the cascade of care in individuals with unsuppressed VL after introduction of routine VL monitoring in a district in Lesotho.
MATERIALS AND METHODS: In Butha-Buthe district 12 clinics (11 rural, 1 hospital) send samples for VL testing to the district laboratory. We included data from patients aged >/=15 years from Dec 1, 2015 to November 1, 2018. As per WHO guidelines VL <1000 copies/mL are considered suppressed, those >/=1000copies/mL unsuppressed. Patients with unsuppressed VL receive adherence counseling and follow-up VL within 8-12 weeks. Two consecutively unsuppressed VLs should trigger switch to second-line ART. For analysis of the VL monitoring cascade we defined care to be "according to guidelines" if patients with unsuppressed VL received a follow-up VL within <180 days and follow-up VL was either re-suppressed, or again unsuppressed and the individual was switched to second-line within 90 days.
RESULTS: For 9,949 individuals 24,948 VL tests were available. The majority were female (73%), median age 41 years (interquartile range 33-52), and 58% seen at rural clinics. Overall, 25% (260/1028) of individuals were managed according to guidelines: 40% (410/1028) had a follow-up VL within 180 days of their initial unsuppressed VL and 25% (260/1028) of those either re-suppressed or switched to second-line within 90 days. Female patients were more likely to have a follow-up VL done, (p = 0.015). In rural clinics rates of two consecutively unsuppressed VLs were higher than in the hospital (64% vs. 44%, p<0.001), and rural clinics were less likely to switch these patients to second-line (35% vs. 66%, p<0001).
CONCLUSIONS: Our data show that in a real-life setting availability of routine VL monitoring may not be exploited to its potential. A lack of timely follow-up after a first unsuppressed VL and reluctance to switch patients with confirmed virological failure, reduce the benefit of VL monitoring, i.e. in the rural clinics. Future studies will have to assess models of care which ensure that VL results are met with an action and make use of scalable innovative approaches.