Context: In British Columbia, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)-infected persons eligible for antiretroviral therapy may receive it free but the extent to which HIV-infected injection drug users access it is unknown.
Objective: To identify patient and physician characteristics associated with antiretroviral therapy utilization in HIV-infected injection drug users.
Design: Prospective cohort study with record linkage between survey data and data from a provincial HIV/AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) drug treatment program.
Setting: British Columbia, where antiretroviral therapies are offered free to all persons with HIV infection with CD4 cell counts less than 0.50 x 10(9)/L (500/microL) and/or HIV-1 RNA levels higher than 5000 copies/mL.
Subjects: A total of 177 HIV-infected injection drug users eligible for antiretroviral therapy, recruited through the prospective cohort study since May 1996.
Main outcome measures: Patient use of antiretroviral drugs through the provincial drug treatment program and physician experience treating HIV infection.
Results: After a median of 11 months after first eligibility, only 71 (40%) of 177 patients had received any antiretroviral drugs, primarily double combinations (47/71 [66%]). Both patient and physician characteristics were associated with use of antiretroviral drugs. After adjusting for CD4 cell count and HIV-1 RNA level at eligibility, odds of not receiving antiretrovirals were increased more than 2-fold for females (odds ratio [OR], 2.53; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.08-5.93) and 3-fold for those not currently enrolled in drug or alcohol treatment programs (OR, 3.49; 95% CI, 1.45-8.40). Younger drug users were less likely to receive therapy (OR, 0.47/10-y increase; 95% CI, 0.28-0.80). Those with physicians having the least experience treating persons with HIV infection were more than 5 times less likely to receive therapy (OR, 5.55; 95% CI, 2.49-12.37).
Conclusions: Despite free antiretroviral therapy, many HIV-infected injection drug users are not receiving it. Public health efforts should target younger and female drug users, and physicians with less experience treating HIV infection.