Risk of dying from COVID-19 doubled for people with HIV in England

By | April 21, 2021

People with HIV in England had double the risk of dying compared to the rest of the population during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic up to 16 June 2020, Dr Sara Croxford of Public Health England reported at the joint British HIV Association and British Association of Sexual Health and HIV conference today.

The findings are similar to those of two large studies published in 2020, which also found a raised risk of death from COVID-19 in people with HIV in the United Kingdom.

The Public Health England study found that over two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths in people living with HIV were in Black, Asian or other non-White ethnic groups.

A second study, looking at COVID-19 cases reported to HIV clinics in the UK in the second wave of the pandemic, found that Black Africans had a higher risk of severe illness, as did people who were obese. The study also found that people with CD4 counts below 200 had a higher risk of severe illness compared to people with higher CD4 counts.

Public Health England: risk factors for COVID-19 death

The Public Health England study used HIV surveillance data, which stores anonymised information on people by first initial, date of birth, gender and neighbourhood, and matched these data with reported deaths from COVID-19 to identify all adults with HIV who died from COVID-19 between 2 March and 16 June 2020, the first wave of the pandemic in England.

The researchers identified 99 deaths from COVID-19 in people living with HIV. Detailed clinical records were available in 94 cases. This represents approximately 0.1% of the population of people with HIV in England, showing that overall COVID-19 mortality remained low in people with HIV.

Croxford compared crude mortality rates from COVID-19 in people living with HIV and the rest of the population, finding the highest levels of mortality in Black people with HIV over 60 (985 deaths per 100,000), Asian people with HIV over 60 (781 per 100,000), people living with HIV in London aged 60 or over (722 deaths per 100,000) and people with HIV over 60 living in the most deprived areas (538 deaths per 100,000).

Crude mortality rates were lower in people without HIV aged over 60 in London (521 per 100,000), Black over-60s (751 per 100,000) and Asian over-60s (460 per 100,000) but in most other respects, differences in mortality were less pronounced.

Looking at the entire population, including people with HIV, four factors increased the risk of dying from COVID-19:

  • Gender: women were 45% less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to men (adjusted risk ratio 0.55, 95% CI 0.51-0.69, p < 0.001).
  • Age: each 5-year increase in age raised the risk of death by 79% (aRR 1.79, 95% CI 1.77-1.81, p < 0.001).
  • Ethnicity: Black people were at more than three times greater risk of dying from COVID-19 (aRR 3.44, 95% CI 3.06-3.87, p < 0.001), Asian people at more than twice the risk (aRR 2.24, 95% CI 2.00-2.52, p < 0.001) and other ethnicities at more than three times the risk compared to White people (aRR 3.23, 95% CI 2.86-3.65, p < 0.001).
  • HIV status: people living with HIV were approximately twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as people without HIV (aRR 2.18, 95% CI 1.76-2.70, p < 0.001).
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Among people with HIV who died of COVID-19, 53% were aged 60 or over. Sixty-eight per cent were Black, Asian or another minority ethnic group, whereas 35% of people living with HIV in England are Black, Asian or another minority ethnicity.

Over half (58%) had a CD4 count below 350 at the time of death, 94% were on HIV treatment at the time of death and 91% had a last viral load result below 200.

Eighty-seven per cent of people with HIV who died had at least one underlying condition that increased the risk of a severe COVID-19 outcome, most commonly cardiovascular disease (69%), obesity (49%), type 2 diabetes (48%), chronic kidney disease (41%) or high blood pressure (39%). The study was not able to compare the prevalence of underlying conditions between people with HIV and the rest of the population, so it is not possible to say whether people with HIV had a higher number of underlying conditions than people without HIV, which might explain the increased risk of death.

British HIV Association registry of COVID-19 cases in people living with HIV

The British HIV Association (BHIVA) carried out a registry study of COVID-19 cases in people attending HIV clinics in the United Kingdom, to identify factors associated with severe outcomes. The study collected data between October 2020 and March 2021, the second wave of the pandemic in the United Kingdom.

As this study depends on clinics to submit data, and on the quality of data collected by clinics, this study cannot calculate what proportion of people living with HIV contracted SARS-CoV-2 or experienced COVID-19 symptoms. Furthermore, cases were included on the basis of either a positive COVID-19 test or symptoms that were suggestive of COVID-19. People who had the infection without symptoms and people with infections that did not lead to hospital admission are likely to be under-represented in this study, potentially leading to an overestimate of the risk of severe illness.

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Clinics reported 1310 cases and supplied a standardised dataset of demographic, clinical and lifestyle information and HIV-related data including most recent CD4 and viral load. They also reported COVID-related clinical information including potential exposure risks, testing, symptoms, hospitalisation and severity of presentation.

The study looked for factors associated with two outcomes: severe illness requiring oxygen or invasive ventilation, and poor outcome (either death, or continued hospitalisation or symptoms lasting more than three months).

The 1310 cases were predominantly male (62%) and half were aged 50 or over. Thirty-eight per cent were Black African, 56% were born outside the UK or had an unknown country of birth, 34% had an occupational risk for COVID-19 exposure and 16% had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Of the reported cases, 78% had symptoms, most commonly fever (47%), cough (51%), shortness of breath (36%) and loss of sense of smell (23%). Fifty-nine per cent of these symptomatic cases had been confirmed by a positive test result. Just under 10% of cases reported were asymptomatic, of which 95% were confirmed by testing.

Looking at the HIV-related characteristics of the reported cases, just under 5% had a CD4 count below 200. Four per cent had an AIDS-defining illness at the time they were diagnosed with COVID-19.

“The findings reinforce the importance of advice for prompt vaccination against COVID-19 for people with low CD4 counts and/or recent AIDS-defining illness.”

Although the median lowest-ever CD4 count was 257, the median current CD4 count was 611. Just under 15% of the sample were judged to be at risk of having recently had a detectable viral load, either because they were not on antiretroviral treatment, had been diagnosed in 2019 or 2020, or had had a confirmed detectable viral load since January 2019.

As for underlying conditions, reported cases had a median of one underlying condition known to increase the risk of severe COVID-19, most commonly high blood pressure (24%), obesity (19%) or raised lipid levels (17%). Thirteen per cent were current smokers. The median body mass index was 28 (IQR 24.5-32.3), placing the majority of the reported cases in the ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ weight categories.

Twenty-three per cent of cases were admitted to hospital and 18% of the entire caseload had severe COVID-19 presentation that required oxygen support or mechanical ventilation. A severe illness was almost four times more likely in Black African people (odds ratio 3.90, 95% CI 2.46-6.17, p = 0.0001) compared to White people.

Similarly, people who were obese (body mass index of 30 or above) were almost four times more likely to suffer severe illness (OR 3.95, 95% CI 1.87-8.38). Each underlying condition associated with increased COVID-19 risk in the general population increased the risk of severe illness in people with HIV by 24% (OR 1.24, 95% CI 1.14-1.36, p = 0.0001). A current AIDS-defining illness also increased the risk of severe illness (OR 3.32 (95% CI 1.61-6.82, p = 0.005).

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detectable viral load

When viral load is detectable, this indicates that HIV is replicating in the body. If the person is taking HIV treatment but their viral load is detectable, the treatment is not working properly. There may still be a risk of HIV transmission to sexual partners.

AIDS defining condition

Any HIV-related illness included in the list of diagnostic criteria for AIDS, which in the presence of HIV infection result in an AIDS diagnosis. They include opportunistic infections and cancers that are life-threatening in a person with HIV.

high blood pressure

When blood pressure (the force of blood pushing against the arteries) is consistently too high. Raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, cognitive impairment, sight problems and erectile dysfunction.

body mass index (BMI)

Body mass index, or BMI, is a measure of body size. It combines a person’s weight with their height. The BMI gives an idea of whether a person has the correct weight for their height. Below 18.5 is considered underweight; between 18.5 and 25 is normal; between 25 and 30 is overweight; and over 30 is obese. Many BMI calculators can be found on the internet.

Women were at lower risk of severe illness than men (OR 0.46, 95% CI 0.30-0.71, p = 0.0004), and people with CD4 counts above 200 were at lower risk than people with CD4 counts above this level. There was no difference in the risk of severe illness between people with CD4 counts in the 200-350 range and those with CD4 counts above 350 (OR 0.40 and 0.50 respectively, p = 0.02).

Fourteen per cent had a poor outcome (either death or still hospitalised or symptomatic three months after presentation). After controlling for severe illness at the time of presentation, poor outcome was associated with shortness of breath (OR 2.36, 95% CI 1.44-3.87, p = 0.0006), underlying conditions (OR 1.17, 95% CI 1.05-1.30 for each condition, p = 0.006) and severe illness (OR 8.47, 95% CI 4.87-14.73, p = 0.0001). Age and CD4 count did not affect the risk of a poor outcome.

The BHIVA group conclude that the findings reinforce the importance of advice for prompt vaccination against COVID-19 for people with low CD4 counts and/or recent AIDS-defining illness.

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