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Assessing the impact of prevalent tuberculosis on mortality among antiretroviral treatment initiators: accurate tuberculosis diagnosis is essential

Lawn, Stephen D.a,b; Gupta, Ankurb; Wood, Robina

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doi: 10.1097/QAD.0b013e3283565ebe
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Westreich et al.[1,2] reported on the association between treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) at baseline in a South African antiretroviral treatment (ART) programme and subsequent mortality risk. Although patients receiving TB treatment had higher all-cause mortality risk compared with those not treated, no such association was observed after adjustment for baseline CD4 cell count, other patient variables and loss to follow-up (hazard ratio 1.06, 95% confidence interval 0.75–1.49) [2]. This finding was robust when additional death registry data were included and follow-up was extended by 18 months [1].

This finding seems counter-intuitive and we are concerned that some might conclude from these studies that strategies to reduce the burden of TB in ART programmes in sub-Saharan Africa are not important with regard to addressing the high mortality in these programmes. TB is one of the most frequently reported causes of death in this clinical setting [3]. Postmortem studies conducted in Africa (both before and during the ART era) have reported that approximately 30–50% of hospital in-patients who died of HIV/AIDS have evidence of active TB which was often disseminated [4–7]. TB was also identified postmortem in a high proportion of patients in South Africa who died while receiving ART [8]. It must be noted that much disease identified in these studies was undiagnosed at the time of death.

Despite careful statistical analyses and consideration of various potential biases, Westreich and colleagues have not addressed the fundamental issue as to whether patients in their study were accurately classified as having TB or not. This was defined simply on the basis of whether or not they were receiving treatment for pulmonary TB [2]. No case definition for TB disease was used, no microbiological data were presented and extrapulmonary TB was not accounted for. The disease-free comparator group was simply defined as patients not receiving treatment for pulmonary TB at baseline. No systematic microbiological screening of patients was done at baseline to rule out TB, and postmortems were not done to assess for unascertained TB in patients who died in the TB-free group. Moreover, patients developing incident disease during the initial weeks of ART were not excluded from the TB-free comparator group.

Diagnosis of TB in this clinical setting in Africa is challenging due to the nonspecific clinical presentation, high rates of negative sputum smear, extrapulmonary and disseminated disease and comorbidity that may mimic TB [9,10]. As widely used diagnostic tools (sputum smear microscopy and chest radiology) are so blunt and culture is very slow and much less used, there is considerable under-diagnosis as well as some over-diagnosis of TB. Much incident disease diagnosed in the first weeks of ART is actually disease that was present at baseline but missed during screening [11,12]. In studies in which patients enrolling in South African ART clinics with no preexisting TB diagnosis are intensively screened for TB at baseline regardless of symptoms, approximately 15–25% have sputum culture-positive pulmonary TB [13–15].

Potential misclassification of patients into diseased and disease-free groups may substantially undermine the validity of the findings of Westreich and colleagues. We agree with Straetemans et al. [16] that currently available data on TB as a risk factor for mortality in ART programmes are insufficient to draw definite conclusions, as they have considerable limitations. We suspect that TB (especially undiagnosed disease) is a key factor contributing to high early mortality and that strategies to address this should include rapid microbiological screening of all patients regardless of clinical symptoms [9,15,17]. Further well designed studies are therefore needed and accurate disease ascertainment will be essential for these to be interpretable.


Conflicts of interest

S.D.L. is funded by the Wellcome Trust, London, UK. R.W. was funded in part by the International Epidemiologic Database to Evaluate AIDS with a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID, 5U01AI069924-02); Cost-Effectiveness of Preventing AIDS Complications (CEPAC) funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH, 5 R01AI058736-02); USAID Right to Care (CA 674 A 00 08 0000 700); and the South African Centre for Epidemiological Modeling and Analysis (SACEMA).

The authors have no competing interests to declare.


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