‘Flexible’ Intervention Helps Patients Overcome Barriers to HIV Treatment

Researchers find that an “integrated and flexible intervention” helped patients overcome personal and system related barriers.


People living with HIV who inject drugs often encounter multiple obstacles, both personal and system related, to beginning and adhering to treatment. But NIH researchers found that an “integrated and flexible intervention” not only helped patients overcome those barriers, but also cut deaths by 50%.

The study, HPTN 074, took place in Indonesia, Ukraine, and Vietnam—3 countries with HIV epidemics driven by injection drug use. Researchers enrolled 502 adults with HIV who inject drugs, and 806 adults without HIV, who inject drugs with them (their injection partners). At ≥ 1 injection partner of every person in the study enrolled. The HIV participants were assigned either the national standard of care for HIV infection and drug use, or the standard of care plus the intervention designed to facilitate treatment. The participants were followed for 1 to 2 years.

In the intervention group, participants were referred to local health care providers for anti-HIV therapy. They were also each assigned a systems navigator, who helped the patient identify and overcome structural barriers to starting and staying in care, such as unfamiliarity with how to enroll in medical care, or difficulty keeping appointments. Psychosocial counselors helped each participant overcome their unique psychological obstacles, such as lack of interest in therapy or fear of stigma.

At the end of the study, 15% of participants with HIV who received standard care had died, compared with 7% of the intervention patients. About 26% of deaths among HIV participants were “clearly” HIV related; 3% were due to drug overdose. Among the 42% of patients who died of unknown cause, 24% had weak immune systems.

The intervention had a “remarkably positive impact” on the participants, said Protocol Chair William Miller, MD, PhD. After 1 year, 41% of the intervention group had undetectable levels of HIV, compared with 24% of the standard-care group. Moreover, 72% of the intervention group were still in treatment, compared with 43% of the standard-care group. Similarly, 41% of intervention patients were in treatment for substance use, compared with 25% of standard-care patients.

The study is designed to be scalable to other settings. Investigators have offered the intervention to all the study participants living with HIV. They will be followed for a second year to find out whether the positive impact is sustained.


National Institutes of Health. Novel intervention halves rate of death among people living with HIV who inject drugs. Published August 31,2018. Accessed October 25, 2018.

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