Despite great strides in increasing access to antiretroviral drugs in resource-limited settings, access to viral load monitoring continues to lag behind. The general consensus seems to be that it would be great to have, but with drugs in hand, patients can make do without. A new study has revealed just how extensively this lack of viral load monitoring is undermining treatment.
The study, which monitored 2,333 patients across the Asia-Pacific region, found that patients were 35% more likely to develop severe HIV related illnesses, or die, when viral load monitoring was performed less than once a year. Given that the majority of the world’s 33+ million HIV positive patients live in similar resource scarce settings, that adds up to millions of preventable fatalities. The study also found that, in these settings, monitoring viral load multiple times throughout the year did not significantly alter the effect of treatment, so one annual test is enough to improve a patient’s long term outlook.
Viral load tests not only let healthcare workers see if a treatment regimen is effective, it allows them to monitor adherence to the regimen – a frequent a problem and often the cause of spikes in viral load. Monitoring otherwise provides vital information in determining when certain drugs are no longer working and need to be switched. This is both to find a treatment that more effectively suppresses the virus and to prevent the development and passing on of resistant strains of HIV.
A visualzation of viral load levels. Image from www.gileadhbv.com
But the test remains uncommon in resource-limited settings, primarily because traditional test kits are expensive and demanding of both laboratories and the people running them. It is also not a priority because, in many cases, even if a treatment regimen is discovered to be failing, there are no other options available to switch to.
The focus going forward needs to be, beyond providing 2nd and 3rd line treatment options, providing viral load solutions tailored to the resource-limited setting so the drugs can be used effectively and drug resistance limited. As the study revealed that only one test a year is required to see 35% fewer cases of sever illness and death, hopefully mindsets about the feasibility of scaling up access to viral load monitoring will start changing.
For more details about the study, check out the story on AidsMap.