May 13, 2021; Plos One . https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251645
Introduction: HIV treatment guidelines recommend that all people living with HIV (PLWH) initiate antiretroviral therapy (ART) as soon as possible after diagnosis (Treat All). As Treat All is more widely implemented, an increasing proportion of PLWH are likely to initiate ART when they are asymptomatic, and they may view the relative benefits and risks of ART differently than those initiating at more advanced disease stages. To date, patient perspectives of initiating care under Treat All in sub-Saharan Africa have not been well described.
Methods: From September 2018 to March 2019, we conducted individual, semi-structured, qualitative interviews with 37 patients receiving HIV care in two health centers in Kigali, Rwanda. Data were analyzed using a mixed deductive and inductive thematic analysis approach to describe perceived barriers to, facilitators of and acceptability of initiating and adhering to ART rapidly under Treat All.
Results: Of 37 participants, 27 were women and the median age was 31 years. Participants described feeling traumatized and overwhelmed by their HIV diagnosis, resulting in difficulty accepting their HIV status. Most were prescribed ART soon after diagnosis, yet fear of lifelong medication and severe side effects in the immediate period after initiating ART led to challenges adhering to therapy. Moreover, because many PLWH initiated ART while healthy, taking medications and attending appointments were visible signals of HIV status and highly stigmatizing. Nonetheless, many participants expressed enthusiasm for Treat All as a program that improved health as well as health equity.
Conclusion: For newly-diagnosed PLWH in Rwanda, initiating ART rapidly under Treat All presents logistical and emotional challenges despite the perceived benefits. Our findings suggest that optimizing early engagement in HIV care under Treat All requires early and ongoing intervention to reduce trauma and stigma, and promote both individual and community benefits of ART.