Opinion: This is how SA can meet its HIV targets
“The path to ending AIDS is clear,” states a recent UNAIDS report. “HIV responses succeed when they are anchored in strong political leadership, have adequate resources, follow the evidence, use inclusive and rights-based approaches, and pursue equity. Countries that are putting people first in their policies and programmes are already leading the world on the journey to ending AIDS by 2030,” it reads.
Ending AIDS and the HIV epidemic mean different things to different people.
This very ambitious language is found in Sustainable Development Goal 3.3: “By 2030, end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and neglected tropical diseases and combat hepatitis, water-borne diseases and other communicable diseases”. The global target is to reduce the newly HIV infected population (per 1 000 uninfected population) to 0.05 by 2025 and to 0.025 by 2030.
Another version is “ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030” which has been characterised as being “consistent with the three zeros vision: zero deaths, zero new infections and zero discrimination, operationalized as a 90% reduction of annual new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths in 2030 compared to 2010”.
A third approach calls for countries to reach the 95-95-95 targets – 95% of people living with HIV are diagnosed, 95% of those that have been diagnosed are on antiretroviral treatment and 95% of those on treatment are virally suppressed – by 2025.
A fourth, more realistic approach, is to reduce the number of new HIV infections below the number of deaths from HIV – labelled ‘epidemic control’ – to an endemic status beyond 2030.
Regardless of the definition of ‘ending AIDS’, what should South Africa do in determining its path towards reducing the burden of HIV?
First, let’s start with what we think the HIV epidemic will look like in 2030. Whilst we do not have a crystal ball, we do have a well-recognised mathematical model – the Thembisa model, which is also used as the basis for UNAIDS’s HIV estimates for South Africa. The latest Thembisa model outputs, published last year, include projections up to 2030.
The model projects that in 2030 there will be around 128 535 new HIV infections with the bulk of these, over 54% (70 412) being young women between the ages of 15 and 24 years. Using the definition of a 90% decrease in new infections between 2010 and 2030, South Africa is projected to reach 65.7%.
The model projects that in 2030 around 8.1 million people will be living with HIV with 6.4 million being on antiretroviral treatment. The total number of AIDS deaths projected by the model in 2030 is 40 486 compared to 149 257 deaths in 2010. (This is a 72.9% reduction – not quite the 90% expected by one of the definitions noted above).
How well is the country doing in reaching the 95-95-95 targets?
According to the Thembisa model, the percentage of people ever tested for HIV stood at 83.7% in 2022 (projected to reach 86.1% in 2030). The percentage of people living with HIV who had been diagnosed was at 94.5% in 2022 and projected to reach 96.4% in 2030. The percentage of diagnosed people on treatment in 2022 stood at 77.4% and is projected to reach 81.1% in 2030.
The percentage of all people living with HIV who were virally suppressed was at 65.4% in 2022 and projected to reach 71.3% in 2030. (These percentages are slightly higher if a viral load cut-off of 1 000 copies/ml rather than 400 is used). This means only one of the 95s (percent diagnosed) is expected to be reached. (If the third 95 is defined as percentage of people on HIV treatment who are virally suppressed, rather than percentage of all people living with HIV who are virally suppressed, it will also be met.)
A more optimistic picture has been reported by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) through their recently completed national survey. This survey found that 90% of 15-year-olds and older living with HIV knew their status (this included self-reported status), with 91% of them on treatment, and 94% of those on treatment being virally suppressed (at the 1 000 copies/ml threshold).
Based on the Thembisa projections, South Africa is not expected to reach epidemic control by 2030. So, what needs to be done to achieve significantly fewer new infections and deaths?
What to do
In his address to the 2023 South African AIDS conference, the Minister of Health outlined what the Department of Health considered as necessary. He noted that the country has achieved 94:77:92 against the UNAIDS targets – far lower than the HSRC survey found. This means that, according to the Department’s data, there are over two million people who are living with HIV but not on treatment and a further 1.6 million people who are on treatment but are not virally suppressed. This is far higher than the 1.9 million that the HSRC survey suggests are not on treatment and not virally suppressed.
Regardless of which data is correct, it is urgent that these patients are found, initiated on treatment and supported to reach viral suppression.
While the Minister did not quantify the number of people living with HIV who are not being reached, he did outline the following interventions that he proposed should be prioritised:
- Immediate implementation of the revised and consolidated ART Clinical Guidelines, which includes an integrated approach on prevention of vertical transmission, a focus on TB/HIV given high levels of coinfection, and differentiated service delivery.
- A focus on the 100 identified health facilities which are lagging in reaching the 2nd and 3rd 95s (treatment coverage and viral suppression).
- The need to close the testing and treatment gaps for men and children through HIV self-testing and index testing (an approach whereby the exposed contacts of an HIV-positive person are notified and offered an HIV test).
- A focus on re-engaging those who have stopped taking treatment and scaling up of community treatment, 3-month dispensing of treatment medication as well as the use of community health workers in tracking and tracing people living with HIV.
- A greater effort on combination prevention, using all currently available prevention methods as well as Cab-LA, which is an antiretroviral HIV prevention injection that provides two months of protection per shot.
These are well known interventions and if health workers and communities are committed to their urgent and full implementation, it is possible to achieve further reductions in new HIV infections, as well as further reductions in death. However, as most deaths in people living with HIV are due to TB, a greater focus should be placed on testing people living with HIV for TB – given the estimated 59% co-infection rates; and ensuring that they are successfully treated and initiating those that test negative for TB, on TB preventive therapy.
How do the Minister’s prescriptions align with the recently completed HIV investment case?
As recently reported in Spotlight, the only HIV intervention found to be cost saving for the health system in South Africa was condoms. However, the recent HSRC survey found that reported condom use at last sexual encounter declined in all age categories. The 2017 survey found that 68% of males aged 15-24 years reported condom use, compared to 50.6% in the latest report. Similarly, 53.4% of males aged 25-49 years reported condom use in 2017 compared to 44% in 2023.
It is imperative that more is done to market condoms, given the dual protection that they provide to prevent unplanned pregnancies and transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
Whilst the Minister noted in his speech at the South African AIDS conference the availability of Cab-LA for HIV prevention, the investment case found that at the current price, this was not a good investment and unaffordable! The investment case outputs suggest that it was most cost effective to increase HIV self-testing, focusing on improving linkage to treatment, as well as increasing the rate of testing infants for HIV at 10 weeks after birth. It is therefore important to prioritise HIV interventions, as noted in the investment case, given that the National Treasury has reduced the HIV conditional grant by R1 billion and that the National Strategic Plan for 2023-2028 is not fully funded!
In UNAIDS’s path to ending AIDS, the organisation suggests what countries can do to intervene. These include: political commitment to ending AIDS, respecting human rights, engaging affected communities, removing criminalising policies and laws, addressing gender inequities, stigma and discrimination, as well as a focused approach to prevention. Some of the barriers to ending AIDS are listed as: inadequate prevention programmes, large treatment gaps, and lack of sufficient funding.
In summary, to respond to the call to end AIDS by 2030:
Firstly, it is critical to agree on its definition.
Secondly, it is important to have accurate data, including at sub-national level given that national averages hide variability by province and district. District level data by sex, age and by key populations will allow a more targeted approach to reaching those that the health system typically does not reach.
While South Africa largely funds much of its HIV response – despite the reduction noted above, the possibility of reduced external funding – through PEPFAR (a US government’s effort to address HIV globally) and The Global Fund (an international financing and partnership organisation to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria) in the future, requires the country to move to a more efficient HIV response, with more precise targeting and with greater levels of accountability. For this more granular and real time data will be required.
*Dr Pillay is extraordinary professor at the Department of Global Health, Stellenbosch University and director for HIV and TB delivery at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Note: Spotlight receives funding from the Gates Foundation, but is editorially independent and a member of the South African Press Council. The views expressed in this opinion piece are not necessarily shared by Spotlight.