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Guidelines for the Use of Antiretroviral Agents in HIV-1-Infected Adults and Adolescents

Management of the Treatment-Experienced Patient

Discontinuation or Interruption of Antiretroviral Therapy

(Last updated: January 10, 2011; last reviewed: January 10, 2011)

Discontinuation of antiretroviral therapy (ART) may result in viral rebound, immune decompensation, and clinical progression. Unplanned interruption of ART may become necessary because of severe drug toxicity, intervening illness, surgery that precludes oral therapy, or unavailability of antiretroviral (ARV) medication. Some investigators have studied planned treatment discontinuation strategies in situations or for reasons that include: in patients who achieve viral suppression and wish to enhance adherence; to reduce inconvenience, long-term toxicities, and costs for patients; or in extensively treated patients who experience treatment failure due to resistant HIV, to allow reversion to wild-type virus. Potential risks and benefits of interruption vary according to a number of factors, including the clinical and immunologic status of the patient, the reason for the interruption, the type and duration of the interruption, and the presence or absence of resistant HIV at the time of interruption. Below are brief discussions on what is currently known about the risks and benefits of treatment interruption in some of these circumstances.

Short-Term Therapy Interruptions

Reasons for short-term interruption (days to weeks) of ART vary and may include drug toxicity; intercurrent illnesses that preclude oral intake, such as gastroenteritis or pancreatitis; surgical procedures; or unavailability of drugs. Stopping ARV drugs for a short time (i.e., <1 to 2 days) due to medical/surgical procedures can usually be done by holding all drugs in the regimen. Recommendations for some other scenarios are listed below:

Unanticipated Need for Short-Term Interruption

  • When a patient experiences a severe or life-threatening toxicity or unexpected inability to take oral medications—all components of the drug regimen should be stopped simultaneously, regardless of drug half-life.

Planned Short Term Interruption (>2–3 days)

  • When all regimen components have similar half-lives and do not require food for proper absorption—all drugs may be given with a sip of water, if allowed; otherwise, all drugs should be stopped simultaneously. All discontinued regimen components should be restarted simultaneously.

  • When all regimen components have similar half-lives and require food for adequate absorption, and the patient cannot take anything by mouth for a sustained period of time—temporary discontinuation of all drug components is indicated. The regimen should be restarted as soon as the patient can resume oral intake.

  • When the ARV regimen contains drugs with differing half-lives—stopping all drugs simultaneously may result in functional monotherapy with the drug with the longest half-life (typically a non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor [NNRTI]). Options in this circumstance are discussed below. (See Discontinuation of efavirenz, etravirine, or nevirapine.)

Interruption of Therapy after Pregnancy

ARV drugs for prevention of perinatal transmission of HIV are recommended for all pregnant women, regardless of whether they have indications for ART for their own health. Following delivery, considerations regarding continuation of the ARV regimen for maternal therapeutic indications are the same as for other nonpregnant individuals. The decision of whether to continue therapy after delivery should take into account current recommendations for initiation of ART, current and nadir CD4 T-cell counts and trajectory, HIV RNA levels, adherence issues, and patient preference.

Planned Long-Term Therapy Interruptions

Planned therapy interruptions have been contemplated in various scenarios, listed below. Research is ongoing in several of the scenarios. Therapy interruptions cannot be recommended at this time outside of controlled clinical trials (AI).
  • In patients who initiated therapy during acute HIV infection and achieved virologic suppression—the optimal duration of treatment and the consequences of treatment interruption are not known at this time. (See Acute HIV Infection.)

  • In patients who have had exposure to multiple ARV agents, have experienced ARV treatment failure, and have few treatment options available because of extensive resistance mutations—interruption is not recommended unless done in a clinical trial setting (AI). Several clinical trials, largely yielding negative results, but some with conflicting results, have been conducted to better understand the role of treatment interruption in these patients [1-4]. The largest of these studies showed negative clinical impact of treatment interruption in these patients [1]. The Panel notes that partial virologic suppression from combination therapy has been associated with clinical benefit [5]; therefore, interruption of therapy is not recommended.

  • In patients on ART who have maintained a CD4 count above the level currently recommended for treatment initiation and irrespective of whether their baseline CD4 counts were either above or below that recommended threshold—interruption is also not recommended unless done in a clinical trial setting (BI). (See discussion below highlighting potential adverse outcomes seen in some treatment interruption trials.)

Temporary treatment interruption to reduce inconvenience, potential long-term toxicity, and/or overall treatment cost has been considered as a strategy for patients on ART who have maintained CD4 counts above those currently recommended for initiating therapy. Several clinical trials have been designed to determine the safety of such interruptions, in which reinitiation is triggered by predetermined CD4 count thresholds. In these trials, various CD4 count levels have been set to guide both treatment interruption and reinitiation. In the SMART study, the largest of such trials with more than 5,000 subjects, interrupting treatment with CD4 counts >350 cells/mm3 and reinitiating when <250 cells/mm3 was associated with an increased risk of disease progression and all cause mortality compared with the trial arm of continuous ART [6]. In the TRIVACAN study, the same CD4 count thresholds were used for stopping and restarting treatment [7]. This study also showed that interruption was an inferior strategy; the interventions in both trials were stopped early because of these findings. Data from the DART trial reported a twofold increase in rates of World Health Organization (WHO) Stage 4 events/deaths in the 12-week ART cycling group among African patients achieving a CD4 count >300/mm3 compared with the continuous ART group [8]. Observational data from the EuroSIDA cohort noted a twofold increase in risk of death after a treatment interruption of >3 months. Factors linked to increased risk of death or progression included lower CD4 counts, higher viral loads, and a prior history of AIDS [9]. Other studies have reported no major safety concerns [10-12], but these studies had smaller sample sizes. Results have been reported from several small observational studies evaluating treatment interruption in patients doing well with nadir CD4 counts >350/mm3, but further studies are needed to determine the safety of treatment interruption in this population [13-14]. There is concern that CD4 counts <500 cells/mm3 are associated with a range of non-AIDS clinical events (e.g., cancer and heart, liver, and kidney disease) [6, 15-16].

Planned long-term therapy interruption strategies cannot be recommended at this time outside of controlled clinical trials (BI) based on available data and a range of ongoing concerns.

If therapy has to be discontinued, patients should be counseled about the need for close clinical and laboratory monitoring. They should also be aware of the risks of viral rebound, acute retroviral syndrome, increased risk of HIV transmission, decline of CD4 count, HIV disease progression or death, development of minor HIV-associated manifestations such as oral thrush, development of serious non-AIDS complications, development of drug resistance, and the need for chemoprophylaxis against opportunistic infections depending on the CD4 count. Treatment interruptions often result in rapid reductions in CD4 counts.

Prior to any planned treatment interruption, a number of ARV-specific issues should be taken into consideration. These include:

  • Discontinuation of efavirenz (EFV), etravirine (ETR), or nevirapine (NVP). The optimal interval between stopping EFV, ETR, or NVP and other ARV drugs is not known. The duration of detectable levels of EFV or NVP after discontinuation ranges from less than 1 week to more than 3 weeks [17-18]. Simultaneously stopping all drugs in a regimen containing these agents may result in functional monotherapy with the NNRTIs because NNRTIs have much longer half-lives than other agents. This may increase the risk of selection of NNRTI-resistant mutations. It is further complicated by evidence that certain host genetic polymorphisms may result in slower rates of clearance. Such polymorphisms may be more common among specific ethnic groups, such as African Americans and Hispanics [18-19]. Some experts recommend stopping the NNRTI but continuing the other ARV drugs for a period of time. The optimal time sequence for staggered component discontinuation has not been determined. A study in South Africa demonstrated that giving 4 or 7 days of zidovudine (ZDV) + lamivudine (3TC) after a single dose of NVP reduced the risk of postnatal NVP resistance from 60% to 10%–12% [20]. Use of nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) with a longer half-life such as tenofovir (TDF) plus emtricitabine (FTC) has also been shown to decrease NVP resistance after single-dose treatment [21]. The findings may, however, differ in patients on chronic NVP treatment. An alternative strategy is to substitute a protease inhibitor (PI) for the NNRTI and to continue the PI with dual NRTIs for a period of time. In a post-study analysis of the patients who interrupted therapy in the SMART trial, patients who were switched from an NNRTI- to a PI-based regimen prior to interruption had a lower rate of NNRTI-resistant mutation after interruption and a greater chance of resuppression of HIV RNA after restarting therapy than those who stopped all the drugs simultaneously or stopped the NNRTI before the 2-NRTI [22]. The optimal duration needed to continue the PI-based regimen after stopping the NNRTI is not known. Given the potential of prolonged detectable NNRTI concentrations for more than 3 weeks, some suggest that the PI-based regimen may need to be continued for up to 4 weeks. Further research to determine the best approach to discontinuing NNRTIs is needed. Clinical data on ETR and treatment interruption is lacking but its long half-life of approximately 40 hours suggests that stopping ETR needs to be done carefully using the same suggestions for NVP and EFV for the time being.

  • Discontinuation and reintroduction of NVP. Because NVP is an inducer of the drug-metabolizing hepatic enzymes, administration of full therapeutic doses of NVP without a 2-week, low-dose escalation phase will result in excess plasma drug levels and potentially increase the risk of toxicity. Therefore, in a patient who has interrupted treatment with NVP for more than 2 weeks, NVP should be reintroduced with a dose escalation period of 200 mg once daily for 14 days and then a 200 mg twice-daily regimen (AII).

  • Discontinuation of FTC, 3TC, or TDF in patients with hepatitis B virus (HBV) coinfection. Patients with HBV coinfection (hepatitis B surface antigen [HbsAg] or hepatitis B e antigen [HBeAg] positive) and receiving one or a combination of these NRTIs may experience an exacerbation of hepatitis upon drug discontinuation [23-24]. (See Hepatitis B (HBV)/HIV Coinfection.)



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