The 2015 WHO recommendation to initiate all HIV patients on antiretroviral therapy (ART) at diagnosis could potentially overextend health systems and crowd out sicker patients, mitigating the policy's impact. We evaluate whether South Africa's prior eligibility expansion from CD4 ≤ 200 to CD4 ≤ 350 cells/μl reduced ART uptake in the sickest patients.
Using data on all patients presenting to the Hlabisa HIV Treatment and Care Programme in KwaZulu-Natal from April 2010 to June 2012 (n = 13 809), we assessed the impact of the August 2011 eligibility expansion on the number of patients seeking care, number initiating ART and time from HIV diagnosis to ART initiation among patients always eligible (CD4 0-200), newly eligible (CD4 201-350) and not yet eligible by CD4 count (>350). We used interrupted time series methods to control for long-run trends and isolate the effect of the policy.
Expanding ART eligibility led to an increased number of patients initiating ART per month [+95.5; 95% CI (-1.3; 192.3)]. Newly eligible patients (CD4 201-350) initiated treatment 47% faster than before (95% CI 19%; 82%), while the sickest patients (CD4 ≤ 200) saw no decline in the monthly number of patients initiating treatment or the rate of treatment uptake.
The Hlabisa programme successfully extended ART to patients with CD4 ≤ 350 cells/μl, while ensuring that the sickest patients did not experience delays in ART initiation. Treatment programmes must be vigilant to maintain quality of care for the sickest as countries move to treat all patients irrespective of CD4 count.