Background: Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia remains a common cause of serious morbidity and mortality in patients with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The extensive lung injury that accompanies pneumocystis-associated respiratory failure and the reports of clinical benefit from the use of adjunctive corticosteroids provided the rationale for this prospective multicenter trial.
Methods: A total of 333 patients with AIDS and pneumocystis pneumonia received standard treatment and were randomly assigned to receive either corticosteroids (beginning with the equivalent of 40 mg of prednisone twice daily) or no additional therapy. The primary end points in this unblinded trial were the occurrence of respiratory failure (hypoxemia ratio [partial pressure of arterial oxygen divided by fraction of inspired oxygen] less than 75, intubation, or death), death, and dose-limiting toxicity of the initial standard therapy.
Results: Of the patients with confirmed or presumed pneumocystis pneumonia (n = 225 and n = 26, respectively), those assigned to treatment with corticosteroids had a lower cumulative risk at 31 days of respiratory failure (0.14 vs. 0.30, P = 0.004) and of death (0.11 vs. 0.23, P = 0.009), as well as a lower risk of death within 84 days (0.16 vs. 0.26, P = 0.026). The frequency of dose-limiting toxicity of the standard therapy was similar in the two treatment groups. Intention-to-treat analyses of the entire cohort confirmed these findings. Clinical benefit could not be demonstrated, however, for patients with mild disease (hypoxemia ratio, greater than 350), equivalent to a partial pressure of oxygen greater than 75 torr on room air. The patients assigned to corticosteroid treatment had an excess of localized herpetic lesions (26 percent vs. 15 percent, P = 0.04) but not of other infections or of neoplasms.
Conclusions: Early adjunctive treatment with corticosteroids reduces the risks of respiratory failure and death in patients with AIDS and moderate-to-severe pneumocystis pneumonia. Because the adverse effects are few, corticosteroids should be included as part of the initial treatment for persons with AIDS who have moderate-to-severe pneumocystis pneumonia.