SA AIDS 2023: New treatments and guidelines to benefit kids, with more advances on the horizon

SA AIDS 2023: New treatments and guidelines to benefit kids, with more advances on the horizonThe 11th SA AIDS conference, recently held in Durban, highlighted the worrying fact that key HIV numbers such as treatment coverage are much lower in children than in adults. PHOTO: Nasief Manie/Spotlight
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Several sessions at the 11th SA AIDS conference, recently held in Durban, highlighted the worrying fact that key HIV numbers such as treatment coverage are much lower in children than in adults. There is hope, however, that new treatments and new treatment guidelines might help close the gap.

In a plenary session, Dr Sandile Buthelezi, Director General of the National Department of Health, told delegates that on UNAIDS’ 95-95-95 targets, children in South Africa are at 81-65-68. This means that 81% of children living with HIV have been diagnosed, 65% of those diagnosed are on antiretroviral treatment, and 68% of those on treatment are virally suppressed. For the South African population as a whole, the numbers are at 94-76-92.

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Throughout the conference, various speakers highlighted the fact that only 65% of children who have been diagnosed are on treatment as a particular concern. To close the gap and reach UNAIDS’ target of 95%, just over an additional 88 000 children would need to be initiated on treatment.

Professor Lee Fairlie, Director of Maternal and Child Health at Wits RHI, said in a presentation that only 52% of children younger than 14 living with HIV are on treatment. Fairlie also pointed out that children lagged behind substantially when it comes to viral suppression, and this is particularly challenging in the youngest age groups.

The 11th South African AIDS Conference – the first since COVID-19-related disruptions – was held in Durban recently. PHOTO: Alicestine October/Spotlight

Not all bad news

But it was not all bad news at this year’s conference. One piece of good news is that new and better child-friendly antiretroviral formulations are being rolled out in South Africa. These new treatments should make it easier for children to start and stay on treatment – children often find it difficult to take medicines formulated for adults, due to factors like incorrect dosing, large pills, and bad taste.

The National Department of Health recently updated the country’s antiretroviral treatment guidelines to allow for the use of several of these new formulations and better HIV treatment regimens for children. Most notable is the introduction of a new regimen consisting of the medicines abacavir, lamivudine and dolutegravir (ALD for short).

Speaking at the conference, Dr Leon Levin, a paediatrician who has been treating infants, children, and adolescents living with HIV for almost three decades, pointed out that the availability of new paediatric formulations had a major impact on the new treatment guidelines. (Spotlight previously reported on the registration of some of these new formulations here.) Levin is also the Senior Technical Advisor in Paediatrics at the NGO Right to Care.

ARV pills
Antiretroviral HIV medication PHOTO: NIAID

One such child-friendly formulation is a 120/60 mg scored, dispersible tablet of abacavir and lamivudine that can be taken in patients who weigh between 3 and 25kg. It is given once daily and two generics are registered with the South African Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). “It’s going to literally replace all the other paediatric Abacavir+3TC formulations. You can swallow it, chew it, crush it, or dissolve it in water. So [it’s] very versatile,” he said.

Also important is a paediatric formulation of the antiretroviral dolutegravir – a medicine that forms the backbone of HIV treatment in adults. According to Levin, the child-friendly version of dolutegravir is not available to everyone yet, and many clinicians still need to undergo training on how to use it. It is a 10mg dispersible, scored tablet given once daily that can be used at 3kg and higher and from four weeks of age onward. There are two generic versions of this product registered with SAHPRA.

The introduction of paediatric dolutegravir is likely to overshadow the introduction of a four-in-one formulation of abacavir, lamivudine, lopinavir/ritonavir. The four-in-one combination has to be taken twice daily, is strawberry flavoured and comes in a powder form. “Unfortunately, this product to nobody’s fault was launched at the same time as paediatric dolutegravir. Which means paediatric dolutegravir is going to take centre stage and this product unfortunately is not going to be used much,” Levin said.

Delegates at the recently held SA AIDS Conference heard about new treatments and guidelines that will make life easier for kids living with HIV and the exciting potential of several new long-acting experimental treatments. PHOTO: TAC Archive

Updated guidelines

Levin explained that the changes to South Africa’s treatment guidelines focused on doing two main things when it comes to children living with HIV, the first is to implement an optimised regimen – the ALD regimen and the second is to create an “enabling environment to support engagement in care and adherence”. He said that with the new guidelines, we can expect “much improved [viral] suppression, optimised regimens, improved synchronisation of clinic visits, happier patients and their families and clinicians as well”.

A big change to the guidelines is that now children who weigh 3kg and are four weeks of age should be started on the ALD regimen, instead of the abacavir, lamivudine, and lopinavir/ritonavir regimen that was previously recommended. “This is a major change. It’s a fantastic, well-tolerated regimen. It’s potent and you’re going to get around a lot of the issues you had with these younger children,” Levin said.

Once the children on this regimen get to 30kg, they will be switched to a regimen containing tenofovir, dolutegravir, and lamivudine (TLD for short). TLD is also the regimen adults living with HIV in South Africa are offered when starting treatment for the first time.

For children who are already on treatment, the new guidelines recommend that all children who are four weeks of age and older and weigh 3kgs or more should be transitioned to a dolutegravir-containing regimen. For children with suppressed viral loads, the switch to ALD or TLD is straightforward, while for children without viral suppression, it can get more complicated.

Another important change is that children over five years of age are now eligible for Repeat Prescription Collection Strategies (RPCs) if they are virally suppressed and had an age-appropriate disclosure, which means that their HIV status has been explained to them in a way that is appropriate for their age, as outlined in the guidelines. For children under five, they can be given a three months supply at a time, providing they are at least six months old. Levin pointed out that whenever RCPs or a three months supply is considered for children, it is essential to look at where and how the parents may be receiving their own antiretroviral treatment so that it can be co-ordinated, and parents don’t have to go to two different places to collect the medications.

In South Africa, 81% of children living with HIV have been diagnosed, 65% of those diagnosed are on antiretroviral treatment, and 68% of those on treatment are virally suppressed. PHOTO: ADEK BERRY/AFP

New options in the pipeline

While the paediatric formulations included in the new guidelines are a step forward, there are experimental treatments in the pipeline that may make treatment yet more convenient for children.

“There’s a rich pipeline of new combinations and drug delivery developments. Hopefully, this will further improve access, clinical and virological outcomes,” Fairlie said in a conference presentation. “Obviously, the paediatric market is extremely small and then one has to maintain enthusiasm for manufacturers to actually continue to look at the paediatric population. And so, merging of treatments and prophylaxis regimens is really what would work going forwards.”

In her presentation, she specifically referred to long-acting formulations of cabotegravir (CAB-LA) and rilpivirine (RPV). CAB-LA has already been approved by SAHPRA for HIV prevention in adults and, as Spotlight reported last week, pilot projects evaluating how to best provide the CAB-LA injection in South Africa are set to start soon. The combination of CAB-LA and rilpivirine injections has been approved for the treatment of HIV in adults by the United States Food and Drug Administration, but not yet by SAHPRA. The injections are administered every two months.

Fairlie says that currently there are several studies either ongoing or set to start soon for the use of these agents in the paediatric and adolescent age groups. In addition, there are also trials planned to test another long-acting medication called lenacapavir in adolescents and broadly neutralising antibodies (bNAbs) in children.

She also highlighted several improved delivery methods that are in the pipeline for paediatrics. These include a mechanism that doesn’t require water, like oro-dispersible tablets, also known as fast melts, which disintegrate in the mouth as well as oral films that stick to the mouth, disintegrate there, and dissolve. There are also various tablet options that are small enough for children to swallow easily. Like multi-particulates, which are small and solid, multiple-unit dosages that can take the form of granules, pellets, or beads. Mini-tablets are also a prospect – these are compressed tablets no larger than 4ml. Finally, there are novel mechanisms like long-acting oral drug delivery systems and micro-array patches. Fairlie explained that long-acting oral drugs are where a drug is stored in the centre of a capsule that has a number of “arms”, which are able to keep the capsule in the stomach and slowly dissolve and release the drug into the stomach. This allows for slow-release dosing. The “arms” tend to break down after about seven days.