Virologic non-suppression and early loss to follow up among pregnant and non-pregnant adolescents aged 15-19 years initiating antiretroviral therapy in South Africa: a retrospective cohort study

J Int AIDS Soc. 2022 Jan;25(1):e25870. doi: 10.1002/jia2.25870.


Introduction: Older adolescents aged 15-19 years continue to have high rates of loss to follow up (LTFU), and high rates of virologic non-suppression (VNS) compared to younger adolescents and adults. Adolescent females are at risk of pregnancy, which puts those living with HIV at a dual vulnerability. Our study assessed the factors associated with VNS and LTFU in older adolescents (including pregnant females) who initiated antiretroviral therapy (ART) in South Africa.

Methods: We included adolescents aged 15-19 years initiating ART between 2004 and 2019, with ≥ one viral load (VL) measurement between 4 and 24.5 months, and ≥ 6 months follow-up, from six South African cohorts of the International epidemiology Databases to Evaluate AIDS-Southern Africa (IeDEA-SA). We defined VNS as VL ≥400 copies/ml and LTFU as not being in care for ≥180 days from ART start and not known as transferred out of the clinic or dead in the first 24 months on ART. We examined factors associated with VNS and LTFU using Fine&Gray competing risk models.

Results: We included a total of 2733 adolescents, 415 (15.2%) males, median (IQR) age at ART start of 18.6 (17.3, 19.4) years. Among females, 585/2318 (25.2%) were pregnant. Over the 24-month follow-up, 424 (15.5%) of all adolescents experienced VNS: range (11.1% pregnant females and 20.5% males). Over half of all adolescents were LTFU before any other event could occur. The hazard of VNS reduced with increasing age and CD4 count above 200 cells/μl at ART initiation among all adolescents having adjusted for all measured patient characteristics [adjusted sub-distribution hazard ratio (aSHR) 19 vs. 15 years: 0.50 (95% CI: 0.36, 0.68), aSHR: >500 vs. ≤200 cells/μl: 0.22 (95% CI: 0.16, 0.31)]. The effect of CD4 count persisted in pregnant females. Increasing age and CD4 count >200 cells/μl were risk factors for LTFU among all adolescents.

Conclusions: Older adolescents had a high risk of LTFU shortly after ART start and a low risk of VNS, especially those initiating treatment during pregnancy. Interventions addressing adherence and retention should be incorporated into adolescent-friendly services to prevent VNS and LTFU and endeavour to trace lost adolescents as soon as they are identified.

Keywords: HIV; adolescents; antiretroviral therapy; loss to follow up; pregnancy; virologic non-suppression.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • HIV Infections* / drug therapy
  • HIV Infections* / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • South Africa / epidemiology