Home > USPHS guidelines: We need reliable evidence to justify an earlier start of anti-retroviral therapy. May, 2010 > USPHS guidelines:We need reliable evidence to justify an earlier start of anti-retroviral therapy.

USPHS guidelines:We need reliable evidence to justify an earlier start of anti-retroviral therapy.


The most recent revision of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS recommended initiation of anti-retroviral treatment at a CD4 count of 500.

This recommendation was made in the absence of evidence from a prospective randomized clinical trial.   Instead, evidence of inferior quality was relied on.

Much is at stake for HIV infected individuals.  The point in the course of HIV infection when treatment is initiated can affect the duration and quality of life.

Rather than issuing interim guidelines pending the completion of a prospective randomized trial the guidelines committee has jumped the gun, relying on evidence of inferior quality.

In the following article, John Falkenberg reminds us of the harm that has resulted from basing recommendations on observational cohort studies.

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John Falkenberg  New York, NY

Doctors and patients always have the right to choose treatment that is not based on data generated from well-designed clinical trials.  However, I worry when treatment guidelines are based on cohort studies or anecdote, and it’s alarming when the city of San Francisco and Project Inform endorse that practice.

No study is cited more often than NA-ACCORD, an observational cohort study, to support early antiretroviral therapy.  Besides the many historical examples of harm caused by treatment guidelines based on observational studies (see the Nurses’ Health Study, below), NA-ACCORD suffers from more than the self selection bias of observational studies:  a large percentage of the deferred treatment group, approximately 45%, did not initiate therapy and/or did not have a decline in CD4 counts.  How can those findings be extrapolated to clinical practice?  In addition, the early treatment group may have had incomparable medical care.  For example, were lipids more carefully monitored in that group resulting in more aggressive use of statins, a class of drug with pleiotropic effects that include improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response.  These drugs have demonstrated morbidity and mortality benefits in clinical settings where lipid levels are normal.

The history of HIV treatment guidelines is an excellent reminder of the risk of formulating guidelines based on observational studies and anecdotal evidence.  However, HIV is not the best example.  There are clinical settings where “more compelling” cohort data using medications considered relatively safe served as the basis for treatment guidelines that ultimately were proven wrong at a significant cost.

I think the best example pertains to the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in postmenopausal women.  There were many anecdotal, observational and retrospective reports of the many benefits of HRT, but the Nurses’ Health Study was the flagship.  The Nurses Heath Study was a case control, observational study of over 120,000 nurses, including over 20,000 who were post menopausal.  As the follow up continued for years, an increasing number of women reached menopause, and various health variables were monitored and reported.  The most striking “conclusion” of this study was that the relative risk of death was 0.63 in HRT users vs. non users.  The risk of major coronary artery disease among HRT users was 0.60 when compared to those who never used HRT.  Both of these findings were statistically significant.  These data were broadly reported in medical journals, and professional meetings.  The data were added to the HRT prescribing information and aggressively promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, particularly the manufacturer of Premarin (American Home Products, renamed Wyeth, recently acquired by Pfizer), the most widely prescribed HRT.

There was huge resistance to conducting a prospective randomized controlled trial in this population.  “It denies the placebo-controlled group the protective heart benefits of HRT.”  “It is unethical to randomize people who would clearly benefit from HRT to placebo.”  “No one would enroll in this trial considering what we already know about the benefits of HRT in this population.”  Despite the criticism, the Women’s Health Initiative, a prospective randomized controlled study of HRT in postmenopausal women was conducted.  In July 2002 the study was halted early due to a statistically significant excess risk of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer in those receiving HRT versus those on placebo; a finding that literally rocked the world of HRT.

More recently, long-term treatment recommendations in diabetes were debunked by results from the first well designed, randomized controlled study (coincidently named ACCORD), with cardiovascular clinical endpoints.  Using multiple medications for intensive glucose lowering and intensive blood pressure reduction did not reduce cardiovascular events but only increased adverse events.  Once again, guidelines formulated without data derived from controlled clinical trials did more harm than good.

There is a lot at stake here and I fear that this is déjà vu all over again.  The NA-ACCORD results are compelling and generate a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but the clinical trial has yet to be performed and the evidence is absent.  I find it difficult to understand why those of us who have lived during decades of this epidemic, who have seen those living with HIV experience a wide range in the rate of disease progression, and who have seen the rise and fall of early antiretroviral therapy, do not demand more.  I’m shocked by both the city of San Francisco and Project Inform.

I cannot claim to know the motivation behind the current push for early treatment without evidence.  However, I do know the pressure felt by the pharmaceutical industry as they approach a patent cliff with little in the advanced research pipeline and significant overcapacity.  It is not coincidental that lobbying efforts have been stepped up in an economic climate where value driven medicine is a new priority.  That lobbying includes an aggressive push to eliminate informed consent for HIV testing and a push for early treatment.  And, here we are with major public health agencies and CBO’s jumping on the bandwagon without the evidence

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