July 31, 2012 – As the international community gathered for the XIX International AIDS Conference last week, HIV & AIDS experts and key organizations voiced their support for a new approach to preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV: Option B+.
Option B+ calls for antiretroviral therapy (ART) for life for all HIV-positive pregnant women, regardless of CD4 levels.
The government of Malawi, with the support of MSH, adapted the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on preventing mother-to-child transmission, to the needs of Malawi. Current WHO guidelines (2010) distinguish between treatment and prevention (known as “prophylaxis”) and rely on accurate CD4 counts to determine ARV regimens.
Unable to quickly and accurately ensure results from CD4 counts on HIV-positive women, and struggling to adjust treatment regimens given the high fertility rates and frequent pregnancies, Malawi elected to combine ART with PMTCT in a new approach they dubbed Option B which offers lifelong treatment to all HIV-positive pregnant women, regardless of their CD4 levels. The Malawi Ministry of Health devised this approach with support of MSH’s Basic Support for Institutionalizing Child Survival (BASICS) program, funded by USAID.
Dr. Erik Schouten of MSH and colleagues described the bold, new approach in a Lancet article in July, 2011. Option B+ puts women and children first, and, as Schouten and colleagues argue, will likely be cost-effective for countries, like Malawi, in the long-term.
In April, 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a programmatic update on “Use of ARVs for Treating Pregnant Women and Preventing HIV Infection in Infants” (PDF). In the executive summary, the WHO said:
Now a new, third option (Option B+) proposes further evolution—not only providing the same triple ARV drugs to all HIV-infected pregnant women beginning in the antenatal clinic setting but also continuing this therapy for all of these women for life. Important advantages of Option B+ include: further simplification of regimen and service delivery and harmonization with ART programmes, protection against mother-to-child transmission in future pregnancies, a continuing prevention benefit against sexual transmission to serodiscordant partners, and avoiding stopping and starting of ARV drugs. While these benefits need to be evaluated in programme settings, and systems and support requirements need careful consideration, this is an appropriate time for countries to start assessing their situation and experience to make optimal programmatic choices.
Since July, 2011, MSH has helped trained a cadre of 3,366 health workers in Malawi. Within the first year of implementation in Malawi, the number of HIV-positive pregnant women starting ARV treatment has increased six-fold from 1,200 per quarter prior to implementation, to 7,200 in the quarter ending in June 2012. MSH is currently working on a cost-benefit analysis, and is studying the efficacy and challenges of option B+ scale up for preventing vertical transmission in Malawi.
Now others are following Malawi’s lead, particularly in light of Ambassador Eric Goosby’s and UNAIDS’ Michel Sidibe’s call for eliminating pediatric HIV by 2015 (PDF). Earlier this year, Uganda announced its intention to adopt Option B+; UNICEF began a thorough review of the approach; and other countries have expressed a strong interest in moving toward including Option B+ in their strategies for decreasing vertical HIV transmission.
Throughout the XIX International AIDS Conference, researchers and global health leaders touted the benefits of Option B+, and discussed the potential for combining ART and PMTCT in other countries. At a satellite session on Sunday, July 22, leaders from UNICEF, the International AIDS Society (IAS) and MSH discussed Option B+ for preventing vertical transmission. Dr Chewe Luo, Senior Programme Advisor at UNICEF, discussed the topic in depth during her plenary speech on July 25. And in the closing words of the conference, two rapporteurs gave a hat-tip to Option B+, displaying early data from Malawi, provided by Dr Erik Schouten of MSH.
“Option B+ is a game-changer and one of the most exciting developments in decreasing vertical transmission and pediatric HIV in recent years. In short, it calls for treating the mother, preventing vertical transmission to the child, and continuing to treat the mother. It offers the promise of much reduced vertical transmission rates while simultaneously decreasing maternal morbidity and mortality from HIV,” says Dr. Scott Kellerman, MSH’s global technical lead on HIV & AIDS.
MSH is thrilled that the global momentum toward Option B+ is building. Option B+ may not be right for every country or every situation, but in Malawi – and likely in many more countries – Option B+ will prove efficacious and cost-effective in not only protecting babies, but also in treating HIV-positive women. MSH is proud to have been a part of the inception of this idea and looks forward to working with our broad network of HIV & AIDS programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa and the world, using our technical capacity and research ability to investigate the operational issues that need to be addressed and understood for optimal implementation and scale-up of this approach.
Learn more about Option B+: