Background: A proportion of patients with tuberculosis diagnosed by sputum culture during screening before antiretroviral therapy (ART) have false-negative Xpert MTB/RIF assay results (Xpert-negative tuberculosis). We determined the characteristics and early ART program outcomes of such patients.
Methods: Adult patients who enrolled in a South African township ART service were systematically screened for pulmonary tuberculosis regardless of symptoms by testing paired sputum samples with Xpert MTB/RIF and liquid culture. The ART service provided follow-up for all patients, and early (90-day) programmatic outcomes were determined.
Results: Among 602 patients screened, 523 had ≥1 Xpert and culture result, yielding 89 culture-positive tuberculosis diagnoses. Of these, 37 (42%) of the patients with tuberculosis were Xpert-negative when a single sputum sample was tested, compared with 25 (28%) when 2 samples were tested. Compared with patients with Xpert-positive tuberculosis, those with Xpert-negative tuberculosis (using either definition) had substantially higher CD4 cell counts, lower plasma viral loads, higher hemoglobin concentrations, and higher body mass index. Their tuberculosis was also less advanced, with a lower frequency of prolonged cough (≥2 weeks), less extensive radiographic abnormalities, and a lower frequency of detectable lipoarabinomannan antigenuria and mycobacteriuria. Xpert-negative cases were all sputum smear negative with prolonged time to culture positivity (median, 21 days). Despite greater delays in starting tuberculosis treatment, Xpert-negative patients were less likely to die during follow-up.
Conclusions: Compared to patients with Xpert-positive tuberculosis diagnosed during pre-ART screening, Xpert-negative cases had less advanced immunosuppression and less advanced tuberculosis and did not have adverse outcomes despite substantial delays in starting tuberculosis treatment.