The problem of adherence

As noted above, the efficacy of Truvada as seen in the iPrEx trial was 44%. This was according to an ‘intent-to-treat’ (ITT) analysis. In an ITT analysis efficacy is measured as the difference in primary endpoints (in this case, HIV infections) between the two arms of the trial, as originally randomised. Individuals who drop out of the trial, who don’t follow the intervention as planned, or who don’t take all the prescribed doses of a drug are still included in the analysis, in the group to which they were originally assigned.

In drug trials, an ITT analysis is recognised as the least biased way of reporting results as it takes account of factors that may influence effectiveness in the real world. For example, a person may stop taking a drug because they believe that it is not working or because its side effects are so unpleasant. If only the results of those people who chose to continue the treatment were included, the results would be biased.

However, in some trials behavioural factors such as adherence may be so dominant that an ITT analysis can hide evidence of useful efficacy in certain populations. Alternatively, the product would be found to be efficacious if behavioural factors could be better controlled. This is a problem of statistical power.

The incidence problem is an example of this: if participating in the trial produces a large increase in condom use and/or reduction in partners then this may compromise the power of an ITT analysis to produce a clear result. However, if the results are stratified by condom use then it may be possible to tease out something nearer the ‘real’ efficacy.

Another case in which post-randomisation behavioural differences will make a large difference is where two risk behaviours are closely associated with each other, for instance if there is a strong link between poor adherence and increased sexual-risk behaviour. In such a case, even if adherence is quite good overall, those who are poorly adherent may be disproportionately likely to be infected not only because of poor adherence, but because they take more risks. In such a situation, a case could be made for stratifying the results both by adherence and by risk behaviour.1

The above considerations are purely about factors that may block the ability of a trial to produce a statistically meaningful result. The difference between an OT analysis and an ITT analysis may also be a guide to the difference between the ideal efficacy achievable with the product and the likely effectiveness in real-world settings, but they are not the same thing.

Assuming that a reasonably accurate measure of adherence can be devised, an ‘on treatment’ analysis that takes adherence into account can tell us about the potential efficacy of the intervention. ‘Efficacy’ refers to how well the intervention works in a scientific trial, or when people use it as advised.

On the other hand, an intent-to-treat analysis can tell us more about the effectiveness of the intervention. ‘Effectiveness’ refers to how well it actually works in a given population, given actual levels of use.

But ITT trial results may still be crucially different from real-world experience. In some cases, an ITT analysis may report low efficacy (or a non-significant result) due to behaviours that are more likely in the ‘real world’ such as poor adherence, but low efficacy may also be due to behaviours that are less likely to occur in the real world – such as the high levels of condom use seen in trials.

Both are valuable measurements, especially if the behavioural factors that impair effectiveness can be changed for the better.  

With regard to the adherence problem, if self-report is unreliable, how do we measure adherence?

It has become apparent, during the HIV biomedical-prevention trials, that self-reports of adherence (and possibly of risk behaviour too) are extremely unreliable. For instance, in the trial of the microbicide Carraguard,2 97% of trial participants reported using the product as instructed, but adherence as measured by a more objective method – a dye in the applicators that responded to vaginal mucus – found that applicators were only used 43% of the time. Similarly, in the iPrEx trial, 94% of participants reported taking their pills as indicated, but in a subset of trial participants whose drug levels were measured, only 51% of non-infected participants had measurable drug levels in their blood and tissues.

Trial participants tend to give different answers to questions about their behaviour according to how the question is phrased. For instance, in the MIRA trial of a diaphragm as a possible HIV-prevention method,3 when asked about their behaviour in the previous week, 72% of participants said they had maintained 100% condom use. However, when asked to allocate themselves to one of three categories of condom use (always, frequently/sometimes, or rarely/never using condoms), only 42% reported ‘always’ using condoms.

Other, apparently more objective, measurements of adherence may also be unreliable. For instance, pill counts, measured either directly, or by the number of pharmacy refills, assume that trial participants take all pills prescribed and that participants are not throwing away unused ones. It appears that a combination of pill counts and self-reports drastically overestimated true adherence in the iPrEx trial.

Similarly, electronic devices, such as the MEMS cap, that register whenever a medicine bottle is opened, assume that when a bottle is opened, a pill is taken. MEMS also assumes that people only remove one dose at a time. MEMS will overestimate adherence if people are not taking pills they remove from the bottle and will underestimate it if they are removing multiple doses to put into pill boxes.

Several direct biological methods of measuring adherence and risk behaviour have therefore been tried in different prevention trials.

For sexual-risk behaviour, markers of exposure to semen have been used in several microbicide sub-studies: these collect vaginal-fluid samples and test them for semen markers such as prostate-specific antigen (PSA), semenogelin (Sg), and Y chromosome DNA (Yc DNA). However, these markers only stay in the genital tract for 48 to 72 hours and their absence does not mean a condom was used.

In the Carraguard microbicide trial, the device used to apply the microbicide in the vagina contained a dye that was sensitive to vaginal mucus. Participants were asked to return all applicators and the dye was revealed by laboratory processing. Although this method provided a useful indication of adherence it could not provide information on the number of sex acts for which microbicide was not applied, the timing of use or the amount of product inserted.

In PrEP trials, drug-level assays as used in iPrEx provide a good indication as to which participants have been taking ARVs and even some indication of the timing of the most recent dose. However, they provide no indication of the relationship between dosing and sexual exposure.


  1. Tolley EE et al. Adherence and its Measurement in Phase 2/3 Microbicide Trials. AIDS Behav 14:1124-1136, 2010
  2. Skoler-Karpoff S et al. Efficacy of Carraguard for prevention of HIV infection in women in South Africa: a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Lancet. 6;372(9654):1977-87, 2008
  3. Padian NS et al. Diaphragm and lubricant gel for prevention of HIV acquisition in southern African women: a randomised controlled trial. Lancet 370(9583):251-261, 2007
This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
Community Consensus Statement on Access to HIV Treatment and its Use for Prevention

Together, we can make it happen

We can end HIV soon if people have equal access to HIV drugs as treatment and as PrEP, and have free choice over whether to take them.

Launched today, the Community Consensus Statement is a basic set of principles aimed at making sure that happens.

The Community Consensus Statement is a joint initiative of AVAC, EATG, MSMGF, GNP+, HIV i-Base, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, ITPC and NAM/aidsmap

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.