SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.87 issue10Pesticide exposure and suicidal ideation in rural communities in Zhejiang province, ChinaMeeting oxygen needs in Africa: an options analysis from the Gambia author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Page  

Services on Demand




Related links


Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Print version ISSN 0042-9686

Bull World Health Organ vol.87 n.10 Genebra Oct. 2009 



Adult mortality and antiretroviral treatment roll-out in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa


Mortalité des adultes et développement du traitement antirétroviral dans une partie rurale du KwaZulu-Natal, en Afrique du Sud


Mortalidad de adultos e introducción del tratamiento antirretroviral en zonas rurales de KwaZulu-Natal, Sudáfrica



Abraham J Herbst*; Graham S Cooke; Till Bärnighausen; Angelique KanyKany; Frank Tanser; Marie-Louise Newell

Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, PO Box 198, Mtubatuba, 3935, South Africa




OBJECTIVE: To investigate trends in adult mortality in a population serviced by a public-sector antiretroviral therapy (ART) programme in rural South Africa using a demographic surveillance system.
METHODS: Verbal autopsies were conducted for all 7930 deaths observed between January 2000 and December 2006 in a demographic surveillance population of 74 500 in the Umkhanyakude district of northern KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa. Age-standardized mortality rate ratios (SMRRs) were calculated for adults aged 25 to 49 years, the group most affected by HIV, for the 2 years before 2004 and the 3 subsequent years, during which ART had been available.
FINDINGS: Between 2002–2003 (the period before ART) and 2004–2006 (the period after ART), HIV-related age-standardized mortality declined significantly, from 22.52 to 17.58 per 1000 person-years in women 25–49 years of age (P < 0.001; SMRR: 0.780; 95% confidence interval, CI: 0.691–0.881), and from 26.46 to 18.68 per 1000 person-years in men 25–49 years of age (P < 0.001; SMRR: 0.706; 95% CI: 0.615–0.811). On sensitivity analysis the results were robust to the possible effect of misclassification of HIV-related deaths.
CONCLUSION: Overall population mortality and HIV-related adult mortality declined significantly following ART roll-out in a community with a high prevalence of HIV infection. A clear public health message of the benefits of treatment, as revealed by these findings, should be part of a multi-faceted strategy to encourage people to find out their HIV serostatus and seek care.


OBJECTIF: Étudier, à l'aide d'un système de surveillance démographique, les tendances de la mortalité adulte dans une population d'Afrique du Sud rurale desservie par un programme de traitement antirétroviral (ARV) relevant du secteur public.
MÉTHODES: Des autopsies verbales ont été menées pour l'ensemble des 7930 décès relevés entre janvier 2000 et décembre 2006 dans une population sous surveillance démographique de 74500 individus habitant le district d'Umkhanyakude, au nord de la province du KwaZulu-Natal, en Afrique du Sud. Les taux de mortalité standardisés sur l'âge (TMSA) ont été calculés pour les adultes de 25 à 49 ans, tranche d'âges la plus touchée par le VIH, sur les deux années précédant 2004 et sur les 3 années ultérieures, pendant lesquelles le traitement ARV a été disponible.
RÉSULTATS: Entre la période 2002-2003 (précédant la délivrance du traitement ARV) et la période 2004-2006 (succédant à la mise en place de ce traitement), la mortalité liée au VIH standardisée sur l'âge a baissé fortement de 22,52 à 17,58 décès pour 1000 personnes-ans chez les femmes de 25 à 49 ans (p < 0,001, TMSA : 0,780 ; intervalle de confiance à 95 %, IC : 0,691-0,881) et de 26,46 à 18,68 décès pour 1000 personnes-ans chez les hommes de 25 à 49 ans (p < 0,001 ; TMSA : 0,706 ; IC à 95 % ; 0,615-0,811). D'après l'analyse de sensibilité, les résultats étaient peu sensibles à l'effet des erreurs de classification des décès liés aux VIH.
CONCLUSION: La mortalité dans la population générale et celle des adultes liée au VIH ont baissé notablement après le développement du traitement ARV dans une communauté subissant une forte prévalence des infections à VIH. Un message de santé publique clair, présentant les bénéfices du traitement tels qu'ils apparaissent d'après ces résultats, devrait faire partie de la stratégie multtifacettes pour encourager les personnes à déterminer leur statut VIH et à consulter.


OBJETIVO: Investigar las tendencias de la mortalidad de adultos en una población atendida por un programa de tratamiento antirretroviral (TAR) del sector público en la Sudáfrica rural mediante un sistema de vigilancia demográfica.
MÉTODOS: Se realizaron autopsias verbales para la totalidad de las 7930 muertes observadas entre enero de 2000 y diciembre de 2006 en una población de vigilancia demográfica de 74 500 personas del distrito de Umkhanyakude en KwaZulu-Natal, provincia septentrional de Sudáfrica. Se calcularon las razones de tasas de mortalidad normalizadas (RTMN) por edad en los adultos de 25 a 49 años, el grupo más afectado por el VIH, para los dos años anteriores a 2004 y los 3 años subsiguientes, en los que se disponía de TAR.
RESULTADOS: Entre 2002–2003 (periodo anterior al TAR) y 2004–2006 (periodo con TAR), la mortalidad por VIH normalizada por edad disminuyó de forma significativa, de 22,52 a 17,58 por 1000 personas-año entre las mujeres de 25 a 49 años (p < 0,001; RTMN: 0,780; intervalo de confianza [IC] del 95%: 0,691–0,881), y de 26,46 a 18,68 por 1000 personas-año entre los hombres de 25 a 49 años (p < 0,001; RTMN: 0,706; IC95%: 0,615–0,811). En los análisis de sensibilidad realizados, los resultados demostraron ser robustos ante el posible efecto de los errores de clasificación de las defunciones relacionadas con el VIH.
CONCLUSIÓN: La mortalidad de la población general y la mortalidad de adultos relacionada con el VIH disminuyeron de forma significativa tras la introducción del TAR en una comunidad con alta prevalencia de infección por VIH. Como parte de una estrategia multiforme orientada a alentar a la gente a averiguar su serología VIH y buscar atención, debería difundirse un mensaje de salud pública que explique claramente, según demuestran nuestros resultados, los beneficios del tratamiento.




Since 2003, there has been unprecedented global investment in delivering antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV infection to populations in resource-poor countries. The benefit of ART to an individual with advanced HIV infection is well established,1–5 and programmes for its widespread introduction6 can reduce the substantial increase in HIV-related adult mortality7,8 that has occurred as the HIV pandemic has developed. The effect of ART roll-out can be measured in many ways – treatment coverage, behaviour change, the emergence of resistance, etc.9,10 – but ultimately changes in population mortality are the most important measurable effect. In particular, national governments and international agencies faced with limited resources and competing demands need scientifically robust estimates of the potential effect at the population level of making a huge investment in ART roll-out.11

South Africa has over 5.5 million HIV-infected individuals and 14% of the world's HIV+ population.8 The HIV pandemic is estimated to have reduced life expectancy in the country by about 13 years, from 64 in 1990 to 51 in 2005.12 The northern province of KwaZulu-Natal carries the greatest burden of infection, with an estimated12 1.54 million HIV+ residents, which is more than the combined total of HIV+ people in Botswana and Uganda.

We composed an open cohort within an ongoing demographic surveillance system to investigate adult all-cause and HIV-related mortality trends in 2000–2006 in a population serviced by a well-functioning, public-sector ART programme initiated in 2004.13



Study area and population

The Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies hosts a demographic surveillance programme in the district of Umkhanyakude in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.13,14 Although it is largely rural, the demographic surveillance area (DSA), consisting of 435 square kilometres (km²), also includes a township and periurban informal settlements. Biannual surveillance visits to all homesteads within the DSA were performed by fieldwork teams to record births, deaths and any in- and out-migrations of household members. All household members reported during surveillance visits were followed up, whether or not they were residing in the homestead in subsequent visits. Thus, at each surveillance visit a key household informant is presented with a list of the household members recorded at the previous visit, and the residential and household membership status of each individual – i.e. whether or not he or she still lived in the homestead or had moved or died since the last visit – is recorded. The preferred key informant is the household head or a senior household member if the household head is absent. If by the fourth repeat visit to a homestead no suitable key informant is present, the case is referred to a tracking team that makes three more attempts, after hours or over weekends, to contact the key informant. The identity of the key informant is recorded and attempts are made to contact the same one for every visit. Household membership is self-defined on the basis of links to other household members. A resident is a member of a household who normally lives in the same homestead as the other members, whereas a non-resident household member normally lives elsewhere but retains links to the household. Individuals cease to be members of households when they terminate such links or die. Migrations to or from places outside the DSA (external migrations) were distinguished from those within the DSA (internal migrations). On average, 99.5% of all households participated in the biannual surveillance rounds, and the constant review of household members ensured high data quality and reduced the likelihood that any death would be missed.

Since the beginning of 2003, the HIV infection status of residents in the DSA aged 15–49 years (females) and 15–54 years (males) has been determined through separate annual serosurveillance.15 In the study population, the prevalence of HIV infection has increased steadily since the early 1990s.16,17 In 2004, it had reached 21.5% among residents aged 15–49 years15 and was highest among women aged 25–29 years (51%) and men aged 30–34 years (44%).15 But while in 2007 prevalence was essentially unchanged,18 mortality appears to have decreased steadily. In 2000, 74% of deaths among women and 61% of deaths among men aged 15–44 years were due to HIV-related causes,19 but an analysis of mortality trends by HIV serostatus in the population under HIV surveillance showed a progressive decline in mortality among HIV-infected individuals from 2004 to 2006.20

Mortality data

All deaths notified in both residents and non-residents were followed up by a verbal autopsy interview21 conducted an average of 6 months after the person's death by a trained nurse. The closest caregiver of the deceased was interviewed and asked to provide a narrative of the circumstances leading up to the death of the individual and to reply to a checklist of signs and symptoms and a standard structured questionnaire based on the INDEPTH standard questionnaire for verbal autopsies.22 Two clinicians independently assigned the cause of death on the basis of the information collected during the verbal autopsy and their clinical judgement. A third clinician reviewed and codified the causes of death using the International classification of disease, 10th revision (ICD-10).23 If the two clinicians disagreed, the third one organized a consensus meeting among all three clinicians. If consensus on the cause of death could not be reached in this meeting, the cause of death was recorded as "undefined". This was also done if no consent was given for the verbal autopsy interview or no suitable interviewee could be found. The ICD-10 codes were mapped into global burden of disease groups I, II and III24 with the exception of tuberculosis and AIDS diagnoses, which were classified together into a separate group as HIV-related deaths, given the considerable overlap in mortality from HIV infection and tuberculosis.25 Details on the verbal autopsy methods and their validation have been published previously by Hosegood.19

Permission for demographic and HIV serologic surveillance and for the use of data regarding clinic attendees was obtained from the University of KwaZulu-Natal Research Ethics Committee and the Research Committee of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health.


Deaths and person-years of observation were aggregated annually for the period from 1 January 2000 to 31 December 2006 for all individuals in the study population. Individuals contributed to the person-years denominator from 1 January 2000, or from any later date of birth or in-migration, until 31 December 2006, and they ceased to contribute to the denominator at death, termination of household membership, household out-migration or the last surveillance visit in which household membership was confirmed. Thus, individuals who were previous homestead residents continued to be followed when they became non-residents for as long as they remained a member of – i.e. retained links with – the household under surveillance. Over 2000–2006, approximately 90% of external out-migrants continued to be followed as non-resident household members. The previously published mortality analysis20 was restricted to resident deaths and residential exposure only. As a result, the mortality rates given in that article are not directly comparable to those recorded in this one.

We stratified mortality rates by sex and four age groups (< 15, 15–24, 25–49 and > 49 years). The age-group boundaries were chosen to separate groups distinctly different in their rates of HIV infection prevalence,15 risk of dying from an HIV-related cause and rates of enrolment in the local ART programme. To control for changes in the age composition over time within each stratum, we adjusted mortality rates in the different periods to the stratum-specific age distribution across all periods (using 5-year age groups). The remainder of the analysis was restricted to the 25–49-year-old group, as it had the highest AIDS-related burden of disease and also included the majority of the patients in the ART programme.

Table 1 summarizes the 25–49 year old open age cohort and the changes to this cohort during the course of each year. Cohort members were lost to follow-up if they ceased to be members of a household after external out-migration. In 90% of the cases, loss to follow-up occurred sometime after out-migration, rather than at the time out-migration took place. Cause-specific age-standardized mortality rates (SMRs) were calculated for: (i) communicable, maternal, perinatal, and nutritional conditions (excluding any that were HIV-related); (ii) non-communicable diseases; (iii) injuries; (iv) HIV-related conditions (AIDS and tuberculosis); and (v) undefined cause.



To compare mortality before and after ART became available (2002–2003 and 2004–2006, respectively), we calculated the age-standardized mortality rate ratio (SMRR). To obtain the SMRR, the crude mortality rate observed after ART introduction is divided by the rate that would have been expected had the 5-year age group-specific mortality rates remained the same as before ART was introduced.26 SMRRs were calculated separately for males and females aged 25–49 years for all-cause mortality, HIV-related cause-specific mortality and non-HIV-related cause-specific mortality. All analyses were performed with STATA release 10.1 (StataCorp, College Station, TX, United States of America).27

ART programme

As in the rest of South Africa,28 ART first became widely available in the study area in 2004 through local private practitioners with support from employers, individual medical benefit contributions or local non-governmental organizations. The local public ART programme enrolled its first patient in August 2004. This government programme receives support through grants from the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) administered through Elizabeth Glazer Paediatric AIDS Fund and, more recently, through Priorities in AIDS Care and Treatment. It is managed as a partnership between the local department of health and the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Mtubatuba, and delivers care and treatment to those who are HIV+ through a decentralized network of primary health care clinics.

Between late 2004 and end of 2006, between 40 and 100 patients a month have initiated treatment through the local ART programme, and by the end of 2006 1092 patients were being treated at clinics within the surveillance area. If one assumes that 15% of the HIV+ population requires ART,29 the estimated crude treatment coverage in the surveillance area had reached 84% at the end of 2006. Treatment follows South African government guidelines,30 which recommend stavudine and lamivudine combined with either nevirapine or efavirenz as a first-line regimen. Patients with a CD4+ lymphocyte (CD4) count < 200/mm3 and/or WHO clinical stage IV disease are eligible for enrolment in the programme. All patients in the programme are eligible for CD4 counts every 6 months, either before or after the initiation of antiretrovirals.




A total of 7930 deaths were recorded over 517 856 person-years of observation from January 2000 to December 2006. HIV-related causes accounted for 49% of the total number of deaths in the overall population and for 71.5% of the deaths in the 25–49 year age group. Of HIV-related deaths, 65% occurred in the 25–49 year age group, and 12% in the group 50 years of age and older. Appendix A (available at: shows the data broken down by year (2000–2006), 5-year age groups and sex, as well as the person-years of observation and the deaths by cause.

In the 25–49 year age group, standardized all-cause mortality increased from a low of 24.0 (95% confidence interval, CI: 21.5–26.5) deaths per 1000 person-years in 2000 (Fig. 1) to a high of 33.0 (95% CI: 30.4–35.6) in 2003, and then declined to a low of 23.9 (95% CI: 21.8–26.1) in 2006. The HIV-related cause-specific mortality rate in the 25–49 year age group over the same period increased from 19.3 (95% CI: 17.1–21.5) deaths per 1000 person-years in 2000 (Fig. 2) to a high of 24.3 (95% CI: 22.0–26.6) in 2003, and then declined to 14.6 (95% CI: 12.9–16.3) by 2006.





From 2002–2003 (pre-ART period) to 2004–2006 (post-ART period), HIV-related age-standardized mortality declined significantly from 22.5 to 17.6 per 1000 person-years in women 25–49 years old (P < 0.001; SMRR: 0.780; 95% CI: 0.691–0.881) (Table 2 and Table 3) and from 26.5 to 18.7 per 1000 person-years in men 25–49 years old (P < 0.001; SMRR: 0.706; 95% CI: 0.615–0.811). Non-HIV-related SMRs increased in 2004 for women 25–49 years old from 4.5 per 1000 person-years before ART to 7.3 per 1000 person-years after ART (P = 0.001; SMRR: 1.615; 95% CI: 1.275–2.045). There was no significant change in non-HIV-related SMRs for men aged 25–49 years old (P = 0.124; SMRR: 1.157; 95% CI: 0.957–1.400).





ART programme

ART was initiated at a median age of 35 years (inter-quartile range, IQR: 29–43) and 77% of patients, mostly women, were 25–49 years of age at initiation. The median CD4 count before the initiation of ART was 115 cells/mm3 (IQR 52–173). By the end of 2004, 2005 and 2006, 24, 298 and 859 patients aged 25–49 years, respectively, were enrolled at the clinics within the surveillance area. These figures do not include ART accessed through other channels, such as private practitioners. Thus, they can be considered the lower-bound estimate of true coverage, although local data suggests that the numbers of people who access care through these channels is small since ART was introduced free of cost in the public sector.

Estimated mortality

To estimate HIV-related mortality in people 25–49 years of age in the absence of ART, we assumed that 15% of HIV-infected individuals were eligible for treatment.29 The prevalence of HIV infection in this population for the years 2003–2006 was actually measured15 through ongoing HIV surveillance activities; for the years 2000–2002 it was extrapolated from the measured prevalence by using the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA) 2003 AIDS and Demographic model.31 For the extrapolation, the measured prevalence in 2003 was multiplied by the ratio of the modelled prevalence for KwaZulu-Natal Blacks in 2003 to the modelled prevalence in the corresponding earlier year. An annual mortality rate of 44.5%10 was assumed for individuals who were eligible for but did not receive ART. An annual baseline mortality rate was calculated under the assumption that ART was not available in the period 2000–2006. In Table 4, the counterfactual estimated mortality rates are compared with the actual mortality rates observed. As noted, mortality did not change significantly over time before ART was introduced in this population, but it dropped significantly beginning in 2004, and particularly in 2005 and 2006. Under the assumption that 15% of HIV-infected individuals are eligible for ART, from 2004 to 2006 the public ART programme covered 2%, 30% and 84%, respectively, of the estimated need for ART in patients 25–49 years old. We did not explore the effect of changing the assumptions underlying the ASSA model regarding prevalence estimates prior to 2003 because some of them, such as those relating to ART roll-out rates, were not relevant in our case, as we were only interested in overall mortality in the absence of ART.



Sensitivity analysis

To determine if the significant reductions in HIV-related mortality in the period after the ART programme was introduced could be due to misclassification32 of HIV-related deaths in the verbal autopsies, we re-calculated the annual mortality rates in the following three scenarios. Scenaro a: All deaths in the communicable, maternal and nutritional diagnostic group were re-classified as HIV-related deaths in individuals who were known to be HIV+ (from the population-based HIV surveillance). Scenaro b: All deaths as in scenaro a, in addition to deaths in the undefined diagnostic group, were re-classified as HIV-related deaths in individuals who were known to be HIV+ (from the population-based HIV surveillance). Scenaro c: All deaths were reclassified according to scenaro b and, in addition, deaths with an underlying cause (ICD-10 codes A09 [diarrhoea and gastroenteritis of presumed infectious origin], G03 [meningitis due to other and unspecified causes], G04 [encephalitis, myelitis and encephalomyelitis], G04.9 [encephalitis, myelitis and encephalomyelitis, unspecified], J22 [unspecified acute lower respiratory infection]) that could be HIV-related but did not fulfil all the criteria to be classified as an AIDS death in the original verbal autopsy assessment were re-classified as HIV-related. The sensitivity analysis showed that ascertainment bias could not have accounted for the observed reduction in mortality. In females, the HIV-related cause-specific SMRR (post-ART/pre-ART) increased to a maximum of 0.833 (95% CI: 0.742–0.942; P = 0.003) in scenario c, while in males, it increased to a maximum of 0.741 (95% CI: 0.647–0.836; P < 0.001) in scenario b. In scenario c, a significant increase in non-HIV-related mortality was also noted in males aged 25–49 years (SMRR: 1.287; 95% CI: 1.035–1.540; P = 0.026).



There is evidence that the public-sector ART roll-out in rural South Africa is beginning to affect adult population mortality, with an approximate reduction of 22% and 29% in HIV-related mortality rates in women and men, respectively. This reduction occurred in a community with a very high prevalence of HIV infection and high mortality attributable to HIV.19 Importantly, the longitudinal demographic surveillance system records all-cause mortality and cause-specific mortality and provides information about the coverage of the ART roll-out in the population. Because all births, deaths and migrations are recorded, the total population at any given moment is known, and this allows for a precise denominator with which to calculate mortality rates. Because the majority of out-migrants were followed as non-resident household members, the potential effect of any differential out-migration on the reported results was reduced. Further, the cause-specific mortality information obtained through verbal autopsies made it possible to distinguish changes over time in AIDS/tuberculosis-related mortality from changes in mortality unrelated to AIDS/tuberculosis. It is important to distinguish between different categories of cause of death because an ART programme would be expected to reduce HIV-related mortality primarily.

Recent work33 from Malawi has shown a decline in population mortality shortly after the introduction of ART in the study population. Our study assessed the effect of ART in a different environment, with a larger population (74 500 versus 32 000), a higher prevalence of HIV infection in adults (21.5% versus 11.4%), higher HIV-related adult mortality (11.4 versus 6.3) before ART availability and stricter criteria for treatment eligibility (CD4 count of < 200 cells/mm3 versus 250 cells/mm3).

Effect of ART

First, it is highly plausible that the widespread availability of ART has led to the substantial decline in mortality observed in the study population. Not only does the decline show a temporal correspondence with the introduction of ART, but no other major health interventions were introduced in the study area during the same period. As in Malawi,33 the effect of ART on mortality at the population level was seen soon after ART roll-out and increased with expanding coverage, perhaps because, under current South African government guidelines,34 patients start treatment later than they should and they experience high mortality both while waiting for ART and after initiating it.35 Thus, many patients who survived while on ART would have died within a short time had they not been treated. Data from the Western Cape province of South Africa during the pre-ART era show that without ART, 22.2% of patients with stage 4 disease (WHO classification) and a CD4 count of < 200 cells/mm3 would have died within 6 months.35

Second, the decline in HIV-related mortality over time is unlikely to have resulted from differential increases in the out-migration rates of HIV+ people. The out-migration rates of both HIV+ and HIV– individuals and of those with unknown HIV status remained constant over the three complete years for which data on HIV status were available (2004, 2005, and 2006).

Third, the prevalence of HIV infection measured through antenatal surveillance has not declined since the late 1990s,36 the current population incidence rate of HIV infection is high,37 and the prevalence of HIV infection in the study community has increased steadily.16,17 Thus, it is unlikely that the observed decrease in overall population mortality is the late result of a sudden decline in the incidence of HIV infection. Furthermore, non-HIV-related mortality did not decline overall, so that our findings cannot be attributed to a general improvement in health and survival due to secular changes.

In the early years of our surveillance, both overall and HIV-associated mortality were still on the rise, as was expected in light of the trend in the HIV epidemic. According to estimates based on the ASSA 2003 AIDS and Demographic model,12 mortality in KwaZulu-Natal increased sharply after the mid-1990s and levelled off only after 2006, as incidence declined. Contrary to the assumptions in the South Africa model,12 there is as yet no evidence that incidence is declining37 in our area, which makes the decrease in mortality even more intriguing.

Although only a small part of one of the districts in the KwaZulu-Natal province was included in this study, the findings should apply on a larger scale: the measured epidemiological distribution of HIV infection15 and the mortality pattern19 in this population resemble those for the province as a whole and do not differ much from those observed in other sub-Saharan populations heavily affected by the HIV pandemic.38 The additional funds received via the PEPFAR initiative allowed for a faster, more comprehensive roll-out of the ART programme in this area, but solely within existing public health facilities and under the operational control of the provincial government's public health services.

Non-HIV-related mortality

A significant increase in non-HIV-related mortality was observed among women after ART became available. Among males, the increase in non-HIV-related mortality during the same period was not statistically significant in the base analysis but became significant in scenario c of the sensitivity analysis. These findings require further analysis but could have several explanations: non-AIDS-related causes could have defined the mortality profile among the large group of HIV-infected people in this population who were not yet eligible for ART;39,40 the competing risk of HIV-related mortality could have declined,41 or the ART programme could have been expanded at the expense of health care in other areas.

Verbal autopsies

Physician-coded verbal autopsies have known limitations,32 and misclassification could have occurred. However, the sensitivity analysis presented here has shown that even if all deaths from undefined causes and from infectious diseases had been, in reality, misclassified HIV-related deaths, the main results of the analysis remained significant. Changes in mortality from tuberculosis among HIV– individuals are unlikely to have influenced the results, since 80% of the patients who present with active tuberculosis in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, are co-infected with HIV25 and this percentage is likely to be higher still among tuberculosis patients who die.

Public health and operational aspects

The programme that delivers ART to the study population is administered through the public primary health care facilities of the South African Department of Health. Although it receives support through PEPFAR, the programme is overseen, managed and staffed largely by public sector employees, which ensures operational continuity after cessation of external support. Nevertheless, the sustainability of this large-scale ART programme faces the same challenges as in any developing country: a rapidly increasing need for health workers who can deliver ART,42 due in part to treatment success;43 the need to ensure long-term treatment adherence and to retain patients in the programme;44 the unsolved question of the optimal relationship between ART programmes and the overall health care system.45 Currently, many of these issues are being addressed in ongoing studies in our community and other sites.

In summary, we have found a substantial fall in population mortality, particularly from HIV-related causes, following the widespread availability of ART in a rural community with a high prevalence of HIV infection and high HIV-related mortality. However, this should not be a cause for complacency. Although nearly 15% of all HIV-infected individuals are receiving ART, HIV infection remains the leading cause of death in the study community. A much larger proportion of HIV-infected individuals will need to start treatment before HIV-related mortality falls to the levels seen in developed countries. These findings should be part of a clear public health message of the benefits of treatment within the context of a multi-faceted strategy to encourage people to find out their HIV serostatus and seek care.



We thank the community members in the demographic surveillance area who have contributed their data to the study since 2000. We appreciate the contribution of the research operations staff of the Africa Centre in collecting the data used in this paper. We thank the staff of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government health care facilities in this area for providing the ART programme.

Funding: The demographic and HIV surveillance studies are funded by the Wellcome Trust grants GR065377MA and WT77760. The ART programme is made possible by the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the President's Emergency Plan.

Competing interests: None declared.



1. Detels R, Munoz A, McFarlane G, Kingsley LA, Margolick JB, Giorgi J, et al. Effectiveness of potent antiretroviral therapy on time to AIDS and death in men with known HIV infection duration. JAMA 1998;280:1497-503. PMID:9809730 doi:10.1001/jama.280.17.1497        [ Links ]

2. Murphy EL, Collier AC, Kalish LA, Assman SF, Para MF, Flanigan TP, et al. Highly active antiretroviral therapy decreases mortality and morbidity in patients with advanced HIV disease. Ann Intern Med 2001;135:17-26. PMID:11434728        [ Links ]

3. Sendi PP, Bucher HC, Harr T, Craig BA, Schwietert M, Pfluge D, et al. Cost effectiveness of highly active antiretroviral therapy in HIV-infected patients. Swiss HIV Cohort Study. AIDS 1999;13:1115-22. PMID:10397543 doi:10.1097/00002030-199906180-00016        [ Links ]

4. Hogg RS, Heath KV, Yip B, Craib KJP, O'Shaughnessy MV, Schechter MT, et al. Improved survival among HIV-infected individuals following initiation of antiretroviral therapy. JAMA 1998;279:450-4. PMID:9466638 doi:10.1001/jama.279.6.450        [ Links ]

5. The Antiretroviral Therapy in Lower Income Countries (ART-LINC) Collaboration. ART Cohort Collaboration (ART-CC) groups. Mortality of HIV-1-infected patients in the first year of antiretroviral therapy: comparison between low-income and high-income countries. Lancet 2006;367:817-24. PMID:16530575 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)68337-2        [ Links ]

6. Abbas UL, Anderson RM, Mellors JW. Potential impact of antiretroviral therapy on HIV-1 transmission and AIDS mortality in resource-limited settings. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2006;41:632-41. PMID:16652038 doi:10.1097/        [ Links ]

7. Blacker J. The impact of AIDS on adult mortality: evidence from national and regional statistics. AIDS 2004;18 Suppl 2;S19-26. PMID:15319740        [ Links ]

8. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Report on the global AIDS epidemic. Geneva: UNAIDS; 2006.         [ Links ]

9. Baggaley RF, Ferguson NM, Garnett GP. The epidemiological impact of antiretroviral use predicted by mathematical models: a review. Emerg Themes Epidemiol 2005;2:9. PMID:16153307 doi:10.1186/1742-7622-2-9        [ Links ]

10. Walensky RP, Wood R, Weinstein MC, Martinson NA, Losina E, Fofana MO, et al. Scaling up antiretroviral therapy in South Africa: the impact of speed on survival. J Infect Dis 2008;197:1324-32. PMID:18422445 doi:10.1086/587184        [ Links ]

11. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS. Tuberculosis and malaria: partners in impact – results report. Geneva: The Global Fund; 2007.         [ Links ]

12. Dorrington RE, Johnson LF, Bradshaw D, Daniel T. The demographic impact of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. National and provincial indicators for 2006. Cape Town: Centre for Actuarial Research, South African Medical Research Council, Actuarial Society of South Africa; 2006.         [ Links ]

13. Tanser F, Hosegood V, Bärnighausen T, Herbst K, Nyirenda M, Muhwava W, et al. Cohort profile: Africa Centre Demographic Information System (ACDIS) and population-based HIV survey. Int J Epidemiol 2008;37:959-62. doi:10.1093/ije/dym211        [ Links ]

14. Solarsh G, Benzler J, Hosegood V, Tanser F, Vanneste A. Hlabisa DSS, South Africa. In: INDEPTH Network, ed. Population, health, and survival at INDEPTH sites. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre; 2002. pp. 213-20.         [ Links ]

15. Welz T, Hosegood V, Jaffar S, Bätzing-Feigenbaum J, Herbst K, Newell M-L. Continued very high prevalence of HIV infection in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: a population-based longitudinal study. AIDS 2007;21:1467-72. PMID:17589193 doi:10.1097/QAD.0b013e3280ef6af2        [ Links ]

16. Coleman RL, Wilkinson D. Increasing HIV prevalence in a rural district of South Africa from 1992 through 1995. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr Hum Retrovirol 1997;16:50-3. PMID:9377125        [ Links ]

17. Abdool Karim Q, Abdool Karim SS, Singh B, Short R, Ngxongo S. Seroprevalence of HIV infection in rural South Africa. AIDS 1992;6:1535-9. PMID:1492937        [ Links ]

18. Bärnighausen T, Tanser F, Mbizana C, Gqwede Z, Wallrauch C, Herbst K, et al. Measuring the force of the HIV epidemic in a rural area of South Africa. Presented at: the 15th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, Boston, MA, USA, 3-6 February 2008.         [ Links ]

19. Hosegood V, Vanneste AM, Timaeus IM. Levels and causes of adult mortality in rural South Africa: the impact of AIDS. AIDS 2004;18:663-71. PMID:15090772 doi:10.1097/00002030-200403050-00011        [ Links ]

20. Nyirenda M, Hosegood V, Barnighausen T, Newell ML. Mortality levels and trends by HIV serostatus in rural South Africa. AIDS 2007;21 Suppl 6;S73-9. PMID:18032942 doi:10.1097/01.aids.0000299413.82893.2b        [ Links ]

21. Soleman N, Chandramohan D, Shibuya K. Verbal autopsy: current practices and challenges. Bull World Health Organ 2006;84:239-45. PMID:16583084 doi:10.2471/BLT.05.027003        [ Links ]

22. INDEPTH Standardized Verbal Autopsy questionnaire (revised August 2003). Accra, Ghana: INDEPTH Network; 2003. Available from: [accessed on 5 May 2008]         [ Links ].

23. International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems, 10th revision. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1992.         [ Links ]

24. Lopez AD, Mathers CD, Ezzati M, Jamison DT, Murray CJL, eds. Global burden of disease and risk factors. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press and The World Bank; 2006.         [ Links ]

25. Gandhi NR, Moll A, Sturm AW, Pawinski R, Govender T, Lalloo U, et al. Extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis as a cause of death in patients co-infected with tuberculosis and HIV in a rural area of South Africa. Lancet 2006;368:1575-80. PMID:17084757 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69573-1        [ Links ]

26. McGehee MA. Mortality. In: Siegel JS, Swanson DA, eds. The methods and materials of demography, 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press; 2004. pp. 265-300.         [ Links ]

27. StataCorp. Statistical Software Release 10.0. In: Release 10 ed. College Station, TX: Stata Corporation; 2007.         [ Links ]

28. Doherty T, Colvin M. HIV/AIDS. In: Ijumba P, Day C, Ntuli A, eds. South African health review 2003/04. Durban: Health Systems Trust; 2004. p. 206.         [ Links ]

29. Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. Monitoring the declaration of commitment on HIV/AIDS: guidelines on construction of core indicators. Geneva: UNAIDS; 2003.         [ Links ]

30. South Africa, National Department of Health. National antiretroviral treatment guidelines, 1st ed., 2004. Available from: [accessed on 14 May 2007]         [ Links ].

31. Results extracted from the ASSA 2003 AIDS and demographic model of the Actuarial Society of South Africa. 2005. Available from: [accessed on 27 July 2009]         [ Links ].

32. Murray CJ, Lopez AD, Feehan DM, Peter ST, Yang G. Validation of the symptom pattern method for analyzing verbal autopsy data. PLoS Med 2007;4:e327. PMID:18031196 doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040327        [ Links ]

33. Jahn A, Floyd S, Crampin AC, Mwaungulu F, Mvula H, Munthali F, et al. Population-level effect of HIV on adult mortality and early evidence of reversal after introduction of antiretroviral therapy in Malawi. Lancet 2008;371:1603-11. PMID:18468544 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60693-5        [ Links ]

34. Beck EJ, Vitoria M, Mandalia S, Crowley S, Gilks CF, Souteyrand Y. National adult antiretroviral therapy guidelines in resource-limited countries: concordance with 2003 WHO guidelines? AIDS 2006;20:1497-502. PMID:16847404 doi:10.1097/01.aids.0000237365.18747.13        [ Links ]

35. Badri M, Lawn SD, Wood R. Short-term risk of AIDS or death in people infected with HIV-1 before antiretroviral therapy in South Africa: a longitudinal study. Lancet 2006;368:1254-9. PMID:17027731 doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69117-4        [ Links ]

36. Rice BD, Bätzing-Feigenbaum J, Hosegood V, Tanser F, Hill C, Bärnighausen T, et al. Population and antenatal-based HIV prevalence estimates in a high contracepting female population in rural South Africa. BMC Public Health 2007;7:160. PMID:17640354 doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-160        [ Links ]

37. Bärnighausen T, Tanser F, Gqwede Z, Mbizana C, Herbst K, Newell ML. High HIV incidence in a community with high HIV prevalence in rural South Africa: findings from a prospective population-based study. AIDS 2008;22:139-44. PMID:18090402 doi:10.1097/QAD.0b013e3282f2ef43        [ Links ]

38. Adjuik M, Smith T, Clark S, Todd J, Garrib A, Kinfu Y, et al. Cause-specific mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa and Bangladesh. Bull World Health Organ 2006;84:181-8. PMID:16583076 doi:10.2471/BLT.05.026492        [ Links ]

39. Palella FJ Jr, Baker RK, Moorman AC, Chmiel JS, Wood KC, Brooks JT, et al. Mortality in the highly active antiretroviral therapy era: changing causes of death and disease in the HIV outpatient study. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2006;43:27-34. PMID:16878047 doi:10.1097/01.qai.0000233310.90484.16        [ Links ]

40. Monforte A, Abrams D, Pradier C, Weber R, Reiss P, Bonnet F, et al. The Data Collection on Adverse Events of Anti-HIV Drugs. (D:A:D) Study Group. HIV-induced immunodeficiency and mortality from AIDS-defining and non-AIDS-defining malignancies. AIDS 2008;22:2143-53. PMID:18832878 doi:10.1097/QAD.0b013e3283112b77        [ Links ]

41. Wunsch G. Dependence and independence of causes of death. In: Caselli G, Vallin J, Wunsch G, eds. Demography: analysis and synthesis: a treatise in population studies. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Academic Press; 2006. pp. 57-60.         [ Links ]

42. Bärnighausen T, Bloom DE. Conditional scholarships" for HIV/AIDS health workers: educating and retaining the workforce to provide antiretroviral treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. Soc Sci Med 2009;68:544-51. PMID:19081662 doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.11.009        [ Links ]

43. Bärnighausen T, Bloom DE, Humair S. Human resources for treating HIV/AIDS: needs, capacities, and gaps. AIDS Patient Care STDS 2007;21:799-812. PMID:17944556 doi:10.1089/apc.2007.0193        [ Links ]

44. Bärnighausen T. Reasons for loss to follow-up in antiretroviral treatment programmes in South Africa. Future HIV Therapy 2008;2:141-5. doi:10.2217/17469600.2.2.141        [ Links ]

45. Bärnighausen T. Access to antiretroviral treatment in the developing world: a framework, review and health systems research agenda. Therapy 2007;4:753-66.         [ Links ]



(Submitted: 17 September 2008 – Revised version received: 11 February 2009 – Accepted: 11 March 2009 – Published online: 14 August 2009)



* Correspondence to Abraham J Herbst (e-mail: