Objective: To compare patient retention at 3 stages of pre-antiretroviral (ART) care and 2 stages of post-ART care to identify when greatest attrition occurs.
Design: An observational cohort study.
Methods: We reviewed files of all adult nonpregnant individuals testing HIV-positive January 1-June 30, 2010, at a primary health clinic in Johannesburg, South Africa (N = 842). We classified retention in pre-ART stage 1 (HIV diagnosis to CD4 results notification in ≤3 months), pre-ART stage 2 (initially ineligible for ART with repeat CD4 test ≤1 year of prior CD4), pre-ART stage 3 (initiating ART ≤3 months after first eligible CD4 result), and at 0-6 and 6-12 months post-ART.
Results: Retention among all patients during pre-ART stage 1 was 69.8% [95% confidence interval (CI): 66.7% to 72.9%]. For patients initially ART ineligible (n = 221), 57.4% (95% CI: 49.5% to 65.0%) returned for a repeat CD4 during pre-ART stage 2. Among those who were ART eligible (n = 589), 73.5% (95% CI: 69.0% to 77.6%) were retained during pre-ART stage 3. Retention increased with time on ART, from 80.2% (95% CI: 75.3% to 84.5%) at 6 months to 95.3% (95% CI: 91.7% to 97.6%) between 6 and 12 months. Cumulative retention from diagnosis to 12 months on ART was 36.9% (95% CI: 33.0% to 41.1%) for those ART eligible and 43.0% (95% CI: 36.4% to 49.8%) from diagnosis to repeat CD4 testing within one year among those ART ineligible.
Conclusions: Patient attrition in the first year after HIV diagnosis was greatest before ART initiation: more than 25% at each of 3 pre-ART stages. As countries expand HIV testing and ART programs, success will depend on linkage to care, especially before ART eligibility and initiation.