Cotrimoxazole cuts mortality for symptomatic patients with HIV in areas with low malaria prevalence

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Starting treatment with the antibiotic cotrimoxazole at the same time as antiretroviral therapy reduces mortality by over a third amongst patients with HIV, South African investigators report in the July 17th edition of AIDS.

Reductions in mortality were observed for patients who started treatment when their CD4 cell count was as high as 350 cells/mm3, but only if they had more advanced symptoms of HIV disease.

The findings of the study are especially important as it was conducted in a setting where there is a low rate of malaria, but a high prevalence of resistance to cotrimoxazole.


WHO stage

A simplified system to describe four clinical stages of HIV-related disease, based on clinical parameters (symptoms, weight loss and different opportunistic infections) rather than decreasing CD4 cell count. Stage I is asymptomatic, stage II mild symptoms, stage III advanced symptoms and stage IV severe symptoms (an AIDS diagnosis).


A serious disease caused by a parasite that commonly infects a certain type of mosquito which feeds on humans. People who get malaria are typically very sick with high fevers, shaking chills, and flu-like illness. 


Antibiotics, also known as antibacterials, are medications that destroy or slow down the growth of bacteria. They are used to treat diseases caused by bacteria.


Any lung infection that causes inflammation. The infecting organism may be bacteria (such as Streptococcus pneumoniae), a virus (such as influenza), a fungus (such as Pneumocystis pneumonia or PCP) or something else. The disease is sometimes characterised by where the infection was acquired: in the community, in hospital or in a nursing home.

person years

In a study “100 person years of follow-up” could mean that information was collected on 100 people for one year, or on 50 people for two years each, or on ten people over ten years. In practice, each person’s duration of follow-up is likely to be different.

“We have demonstrated a 36% reduction in mortality when cotrimoxazole was included at cART [combination antiretroviral therapy] initiation”, comment the investigators, “importantly, the reduction in mortality was seen at all CD4 cell counts…this demonstrates a wide range of benefit from cotrimoxazole in South Africa”. They continue, “our findings will be important to help guide clinicians in deciding when to use cotrimoxazole preventative therapy in conjunction with cART."

Prophylactic cotrimoxazole is primarily used in resource rich settings to prevent Pneumocystis jiroveci (formerly PCP) and toxoplasmosis in patients with low CD4 cell counts.

In resource-limited settings, however, the main benefits of prophylactic therapy with the drug are the prevention of malaria, pneumonia, sepsis and diarrhoea.

World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines endorse the provision of cotrimoxazole prophylaxis for patients in resource limited with CD4 cell counts up to 350 cells/mm3 or if they are very ill because of HIV (WHO stage 3 and 4).

The recently published results of the DART study showed that cotrimoxazole prophylaxis could cut mortality rates by up to 50% in the first 18 months of HIV therapy in areas where malaria is endemic.

Investigators from South Africa wished to further explore the potential benefits of cotrimoxazole prophylaxis across a range of CD4 cell counts in a region where there is little malaria, but a high prevalence of resistance to the antibiotic.

Their analysis included approximately 14,000 adults who started antiretroviral therapy between 2003 and 2008. These patients were recruited from 231 community and workplace HIV treatment clinics, and eligibility for the initiation of antiretroviral therapy varied between the sites.

At the community sites, individuals could start their if their CD4 cell count was below 200 cells/mm3, or if they had a WHO stage 4 condition. Eligibility at the work-based sites was somewhat more flexible, allowing patients with a CD4 cell count below 250 cells/mm3 or a WHO stage 4 condition to initiate treatment, as well as those with a CD4 cell count under 350 cells/mm3 and a WHO stage 3 condition.

Overall, 7508 (53%) of patients initiated cotrimoxazole preventative therapy at the same time as HIV treatment.

These individuals had lower CD4 cell counts than those not taking cotrimoxazole (118 vs. 153 cells/mm3).

The mean duration of follow-up was 9.2 months, and a total of 10,751 person years of follow-up were available for analysis.

During follow-up, a total of 1137 individuals died.

After controlling for potentially confounding factors, the investigators found that taking cotrimoxazole preventative treatment was strongly associated with a reduced risk of death (adjusted hazard ratio, 0.64; 95% CI, 0.57-0.72, p < 0.001).

Next the investigators evaluated the benefits of cotrimoxazole prophylaxis according to a patient’s baseline CD4 cell count.

Reductions in mortality were seen for all CD4 cell count strata (below 200 cells/mm3, HR = 0.64, 95% CI, 0.56-0.72; 200 – 350 cells/mm3, HR = 0.62, 95% CI, 0.41-0.94); and above 350 cells/mm3, HR = 0.80, 95% CI, 0.38-1.7).

However, further analysis showed that preventative treatment did not have any additional benefits for patients with a CD4 cell count above 200 cells/mm3 with WHO stage 1 or 2 HIV disease (no or minor symptoms).

“We have identified a group of individuals who may not benefit from cotrimoxazole preventative therapy in our setting, individuals with both a CD4 cell count above 200 cells/mm3 and WHO clinical stage 1 or 2 disease. As these individuals had a low likelihood of benefit, the risk for adverse reactions related to cotrimoxazole may be greater than the clinical benefit”, write the investigators.

The authors conclude, “our results indicate that, in resource-limited settings, cotrimoxazole preventative therapy could be started among adults with a CD4 cell count below 200 cells/mm3 or WHO clinical stage 3 or 4.” They note that because the majority of adults in Africa start treatment with a CD4 cell count below 200, "[cotrimoxazole] is a simple and immediately implementable intervention to reduce high early mortality after cART initiation."

They add, “given the low cost and profound impact on mortality, efforts should be redoubled to achieve high levels of cotrimoxazole preventative therapy uptake within cART programs at, or before, cART initiation.”


Hoffman CJ et al. Reducing mortality with cotrimoxazole preventative therapy at initiation of antiretroviral therapy in South Africa. AIDS 24: 1707-16, 2010.