Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Scale-up of a decentralized HIV treatment programme in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: does rapid expansion affect patient outcomes?

Portia C Mutevedzi, Richard J Lessells, Tom Heller, Till Bärnighausen, Graham S Cooke & Marie-Louise Newell


To describe the scale-up of a decentralized HIV treatment programme delivered through the primary health care system in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and to assess trends in baseline characteristics and outcomes in the study population.


The programme started delivery of antiretroviral therapy (ART) in October 2004. Information on all patients initiated on ART was captured in the programme database and follow-up status was updated monthly. All adult patients (≥ 16 years) who initiated ART between October 2004 and September 2008 were included and stratified into 6-month groups. Clinical and sociodemographic characteristics were compared between the groups. Retention in care, mortality, loss to follow-up and virological outcomes were assessed at 12 months post-ART initiation.


A total of 5719 adults initiated on ART were included (67.9% female). Median baseline CD4+ lymphocyte count was 116 cells/µl (interquartile range, IQR: 53–173). There was an increase in the proportion of women who initiated ART while pregnant but no change in other baseline characteristics over time. Overall retention in care at 12 months was 84.0% (95% confidence interval, CI: 82.6–85.3); 10.9% died (95% CI: 9.8–12.0); 3.7% were lost to follow-up (95% CI: 3.0–4.4). Mortality was highest in the first 3 months after ART initiation: 30.1 deaths per 100 person–years (95% CI: 26.3–34.5). At 12 months 23.0% had a detectable viral load (> 25 copies/ml) (95% CI: 19.5–25.5).


Outcomes were not affected by rapid expansion of this decentralized HIV treatment programme. The relatively high rates of detectable viral load highlight the need for further efforts to improve the quality of services.