Contemporary issues on the epidemiology and antiretroviral adherence of HIV-infected adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa: a narrative review

J Int AIDS Soc. 2015 Sep 16;18(1):20049. doi: 10.7448/IAS.18.1.20049. eCollection 2015.


Introduction: Adolescents are a unique and sometimes neglected group in the planning of healthcare services. This is the case in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where more than eight out of ten of the world's HIV-infected adolescents live. Although the last decade has seen a reduction in AIDS-related mortality worldwide, largely due to improved access to effective antiretroviral therapy (ART), AIDS remains a significant contributor to adolescent mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. Although inadequate access to ART in parts of the subcontinent may be implicated, research among youth with HIV elsewhere in the world suggests that suboptimal adherence to ART may play a significant role. In this article, we summarize the epidemiology of HIV among sub-Saharan African adolescents and review their adherence to ART, emphasizing the unique challenges and factors associated with adherence behaviour.

Methods: We conducted a comprehensive search of online databases for articles, relevant abstracts, and conference reports from meetings held between 2010 and 2014. Our search terms included "adherence," "compliance," "antiretroviral use" and "antiretroviral adherence," in combination with "adolescents," "youth," "HIV," "Africa," "interventions" and the MeSH term "Africa South of the Sahara." Of 19,537 articles and abstracts identified, 215 met inclusion criteria, and 148 were reviewed.

Discussion: Adolescents comprise a substantial portion of the population in many sub-Saharan African countries. They are at particular risk of HIV and may experience worse outcomes. Although demonstrated to have unique challenges, there is a dearth of comprehensive health services for adolescents, especially for those with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. ART adherence is poorer among older adolescents than other age groups, and psychosocial, socio-economic, individual, and treatment-related factors influence adherence behaviour among adolescents in this region. With the exception of a few examples based on affective, cognitive, and behavioural strategies, most adherence interventions have been targeted at adults with HIV.

Conclusions: Although higher levels of ART adherence have been reported in sub-Saharan Africa than in other well-resourced settings, adolescents in the region may have poorer adherence patterns. There is substantial need for interventions to improve adherence in this unique population.

Keywords: HIV; adherence; adolescents; antiretroviral; epidemiology; review; sub-Saharan Africa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Africa South of the Sahara / epidemiology
  • Anti-HIV Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy*
  • HIV Infections / epidemiology
  • HIV Infections / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Medication Adherence*
  • South Africa
  • Young Adult


  • Anti-HIV Agents