Happy World AIDS Day. Maybe an odd thing to say on a day that commemorates a disease which has killed 70 million people worldwide. But despite the ongoing tragedy of the HIV pandemic, in 2017 there is lots to celebrate.
While a vaccine or a cure remain distant prospects, we now have incredibly effective treatment for HIV. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can suppress the activity of the virus in the body to the point that it is undetectable and people show absolutely no symptoms or signs of the disease. Many people living with HIV can now take a single, well-tolerated pill each day, and live a normal healthy life. Perhaps even more impressively, we now understand that people with HIV who are taking effective treatment with a suppressed viral load cannot transmit the virus to other people.
With such powerful weapons to fight this disease, reversing the growth of the pandemic now seems possible. UNAIDS has adopted the ambitious 90-90-90 targets – that by 2020, 90% of people living with HIV should know their status, 90% of those should be on treatment, and 90% of those on treatment should have a suppressed viral load. This has driven a huge global scale-up of ART provision, and data from severely-affected countries such as Swaziland is beginning to show the benefits.
So what about Sierra Leone? In Western Africa the picture is complex. On the one hand, fortunately, levels of infection have not reached the levels seen in Southern and Eastern Africa. Sierra Leone’s 2013 Demographic Health Survey found a prevalence of 1.5%, with up-to-date results due in 2018. However, the lower burden of infection means that HIV has previously been afforded a lower priority and less international donor support than in other countries. There is an increasing recognition that Western and Central Africa are being “left out” of the HIV progress seen elsewhere in the continent.
The problem is multifactorial. In the highest-burden countries, almost everyone will know a friend or neighbour who is affected by HIV, which has some effect on normalising the disease. In Sierra Leone, despite the support of counsellors and peer networks, the majority of people living with HIV have not disclosed their status to anyone, for fear of discrimination or even abandonment. As a result, many people believe HIV to be a rare problem, or one that is confined to certain marginalised groups such as men who have sex with men or commercial sex workers. Most sexually-active young adults do not perceive themselves as being at risk of infection, and condom use is low. Fear of HIV affects testing rates, while infected people who are hiding their HIV status from their families find it very difficult to access care and take treatment regularly.
While ART medications are provided free to patients through the Global Fund, people living with HIV face multiple other barriers to care. Limited human and physical resources mean that patients may have to travel some distance to an ART site, and the cost in time and money may be prohibitive. In the rainy season, it can be difficult for supplies to reach remote clinics and stock-outs may occur. This is particularly problematic because excellent adherence is required for ART to successfully suppress the virus. Missed doses because of stock-outs or financial problems, or interruption of care during the Ebola outbreak, can lead to irreversible drug resistance developing.
This formidable challenge means that many people living with HIV in Sierra Leone are not benefiting from prompt diagnosis and effective suppressive ART, and instead develop weakened immune systems and infections such as tuberculosis and cryptococcal meningitis. People living with HIV therefore make up a very high proportion of medical inpatients in Connaught Hospital, with associated high mortality.
Recognising the scale of the challenge facing Sierra Leone, in 2017 the National HIV/AIDS Secretariat launched the ambitious “Catch Up Plan”, which aims to rapidly scale-up HIV testing and treatment across the country. Along with other NGOs, KSLP has been working with the National HIV/AIDS Control Programme to support implementation of the plan.
As part of the national HIV Technical Working Group, KSLP members have been centrally involved in updating the 2017 ART Guidelines to reflec,t the WHO’s 2015 “Test and Treat” recommendation – that all people living with HIV should initiate ART, rather than just those who have evidence of a weakened immune system. We have also been supporting national training sessions on these new guidelines for HIV workers across Sierra Leone, mentoring and supervising staff in Connaught to ensure their implementation, and working on translating these guidelines into a more accessible format which can be disseminated by smartphone app.
In Connaught we have been working with the hospital management and HIV counsellors to increase testing through provider-initiated testing and counselling for patients attending the hospital. This strategy, which is recommended by the WHO, takes advantage of a person’s contact with health services to offer them HIV testing, regardless of the reason for presentation. This has led to a dramatic increase in the rates of HIV testing, particularly amongst medical inpatients. We support care for these inpatients through clinical work with the junior doctors and regular HIV ward rounds with Connaught’s clinicians, and by improving systems to promote access to important tests such as CD4 and TB screening. We are collaborating with a local infectious disease specialist to pilot screening for cryptococcal disease in HIV patients with advanced immunosuppression , and to learn more about the prevalence of cryptococcosis in Sierra Leone.
Treating HIV in Sierra Leone can involve witnessing a tragic loss of young lives when people present with very advanced disease. However, the amazing effects of the treatment mean that it can also be extremely rewarding. A few months ago, I reviewed a lady in her twenties who presented with speech difficulty and complete paralysis of the right side of her body. She had initially been diagnosed with a stroke, but when her admission HIV test was positive we decided to treat her empirically for cerebral toxoplasmosis, a parasitic brain infection seen in people with advanced HIV. The improvement was remarkable. She regained her ability to walk and talk, started ART, and now just has some mild hand weakness. I regularly bump into her and her mother waiting outside the physiotherapy department for her appointment, gaining weight and looking healthy.
In addition to individual success stories there is definite progress following the Catch Up Plan, on both concrete targets and more subtle indicators. When I first arrived in Sierra Leone in January I found many people reluctant to talk about HIV. Healthcare workers adopt euphemistic acronyms – RVS (retroviral syndrome) or ISD (immunosuppressive disease) rather than utter those other three letters. One of the aims of provider-initiated HIV testing was to normalise HIV as “just another disease”, like hypertension or diabetes. Now it feels like the dialogue is changing, with a noticeable increase in awareness and willingness to discuss the problem. Connaught’s young doctors are passionate advocates for their HIV patients, and gain a lot of knowledge and experience about HIV management. While there is still a long way to go in tackling stigma, it feels like people are talking more openly about it.
HIV progress starts with openness and advocacy. So, Happy World AIDS Day! Celebrate by telling one other person the news that people who are on treatment with a suppressed viral load live a normal healthy life and are unable to transmit the virus. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with Connaught and the National HIV/AIDS Secretariat to make that a reality for more people living with HIV in Sierra Leone.
Hannah and Dr Lakoh teaching a session on scaling up HIV services across Sierra Leone last week.