Too often gender and sexual minority health is distilled down to just the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)…as if that’s the only disease that could possibly be relevant. Some small amount of time might then be dedicated to STD’s like gonorrhea. But really it’s all about HIV. But ignoring all the other aspects of GSM health ignores the diversity of our communities. When I started Open Minded Health I wanted to avoid that topic. I saw so much time and so many resources being dedicated to HIV…I wanted to do something different.
Halfway through my third year of medical school now, I’m beginning to change my mind. We still need to avoid focusing only on HIV. But this one single disease has caused so much devastation, so much individual and cultural harm… I can’t just ignore it here on Open Minded Health. The focus here will still be on non-HIV aspects of GSM health care, but I’ll be sneaking in some articles on HIV too when I think it’s appropriate. Don’t worry, OMH won’t become “All AIDS all the time.”
Which all brings me to today’s article!
Radix, Sevelius, and Deutsch did a literature review looking at HIV in transgender women. Trans women, as a group, have the highest risk for HIV infection of all groups. Although we don’t have great data yet, the best estimate is that 19% of trans women are living with HIV.
Worse, preliminary data show that trans women are less likely to know their HIV status. As a group they’re likely to have higher viral loads. That means their HIV is not suppressed. One study in particular found that among trans women who were diagnosed, only 77% were referred to primary care, 65% were taking anti-retrovirals, and only 55% had suppressed their viral load.
HIV treatment 101
HIV cannot be cured. It causes harm by destroying part of the immune system. The goal of treatment is to reduce the number of copies of the virus, the “viral load”. The lower the viral load, the better your immune system can work (measured as a “CD4 count”). This has two benefits. First, you live longer. You’re less likely to get an infection or cancer. Second, you’re less likely to spread HIV to others. HAART is the modern gold standard of treatment. HAART stands for “highly active antiretroviral therapy”. Think of it as the new improved ART, or antiretroviral therapy. HAART is a mix of 3+ drugs that work to keep the viral from copying itself.
Trans women and HIV
Why are trans women at such high risk for HIV? Previous studies suggest it comes down to social issues. Trans women are often more visibly “trans” than trans men, and are a easier target for discrimination. They may be more likely to work in the sex industry. In that industry, anal sex is what they likely end up performing, and anal sex is the most likely to spread HIV. In addition, substance use is higher in trans populations. Sharing needles and items used for snorting can also spread HIV.
For whatever reason though trans women are at high risk. Why such a lower rate of treatment? Why are only 65% taking antiretrovirals? First there’s always cost. HAART can cost $10,000 per year and more. Second, some studies suggest that trans women may prioritize hormone therapy over HIV treatment.
HAART and hormones
Lastly, there are some very real concerns about interactions between HAART medications and hormone therapy. Both estrogen and HAART medications are processed by the liver and often by the same enzymes. Estrogen may change the amount of HAART medications that stay in the body, or vice versa.
According to this paper, the only research that’s been done so far on estrogen and HIV therapy has been done with cisgender women on birth control. As long time readers of OMH know, birth control is not hormone therapy. Birth control has both estrogen and progesterone. And the type of estrogen is different between birth control and transgender hormone therapy. Still, it’s what we have to use. These studies showed that some antiretroviral medications do change the blood level of estrogen, and that the levels of some antiretrovirals are changed by estrogen. However we don’t know if that effect is true with the type of estrogen in transgender hormone therapy…and we don’t know if the differences in the blood levels has a real clinical effect.
I won’t go into detail of which HAART medications did what. Antiretroviral medication names are notoriously difficult to read, pronounce, and remember. Instead, here’s the important part: It is very important for your health care provider to know what you are taking. If you’re taking estrogen, tell your provider. That way they can check for drug-drug interactions and adjust medications appropriately.
What about anti-androgens, like spironolactone, finasteride, and GnRH agonists? Do they interact with antiretrovirals? There are no studies specifically about them and antiretrovirals. No interactions are known. We just don’t know.
The potential effects of transgender hormone therapy on antiretroviral medication blood levels may not even matter in HIV treatment in the end. Why? Well, we don’t just put someone on HAART and never see them again. Physicians check the viral load to see if HAART is working. So they know if doses or medications need to be changed. If there’s an interaction between drugs, they’ll see that the viral load isn’t low and they’ll change the drugs anyway.
In other words: There is no clear reason to avoid HAART while on hormone therapy.
Get tested, know your status, and get treatment if needed. Doing so will allow you to live for many, many years to come.
Want to read the paper for yourself? The abstract is publicly available.
Citation: Radix A et al. Journal of the International AIDS Society 2016, 19(Suppl 2):20810