Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infections and less-than-optimal care of people living with HIV (PLHIV) continue to challenge public health and clinical care organizations in the communities that are most impacted by HIV. In the era of evidence-based public health, it is imperative to monitor viral load (VL) in PLHIV according to global and national guidelines and assess the factors associated with variation in VL levels.
Purpose: This study had two objectives-(a) to describe the levels of HIV VL in persons on antiretroviral therapy (ART), and (b) to analyze the significance of variation in VL by patients' demographic and clinical characteristics, outcomes of HIV care, and geographic characteristics of HIV care facilities.
Methods: The study population for this quantitative study was 49,460 PLHIV in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) receiving ART from 241 CDC-funded HIV/AIDS clinics in the Haut-Katanga and Kinshasa provinces of the DRC. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed, including Tamhane's T2 test for pairwise comparisons using de-identified data on all patients enrolled in the system by the time the data were extracted for this study by the HIV programs in May 2019.
Results: The VL was undetectable (<40 copies/mL) for 56.4% of the patients and 24.7% had VL between 40 copies/mL and less than 1000 copies per mL, indicating that overall, 81% had VL < 1000 and were virologically suppressed. The remaining 19% had a VL of 1000 copies/mL or higher. The mean VL was significantly (p < 0.001) higher for males than for females (32,446 copies/mL vs. 20,786, respectively), persons <15 years of age compared to persons of ages ≥ 15 years at the time of starting ART (45,753 vs. 21,457, respectively), patients who died (125,086 vs. 22,090), those who were lost to follow-up (LTFU) (69,882 vs. 20,018), those with tuberculosis (TB) co-infection (64,383 vs. 24,090), and those who received care from urban clinics (mean VL = 25,236) compared to rural (mean VL = 3291) or semi-rural (mean VL = 26,180) clinics compared to urban. WHO clinical stages and duration on ART were not statistically significant at p ≤ 0.05 in this cohort.
Conclusions: The VL was >1000 copies/mL for 19% of PLHIV receiving ART, indicating that these CDC-funded clinics and programs in the Haut-Katanga and Kinshasa provinces of DRC have more work to do. Strategically designed innovations in services are desirable, with customized approaches targeting PLHIV who are younger, male, those LTFU, with HIV/TB co-infection, and those receiving care from urban clinics.
Keywords: Democratic Republic of Congo; HIV viral load suppression; TB/HIV co-infection; WHO clinical stages; antiretroviral therapy.