Based on new evidence assessing benefits and risks, the WHO recommends the use of the HIV drug dolutegravir (DTG) as the preferred first-line and second-line treatment for all populations, including pregnant women and those of childbearing potential.
Initial studies had highlighted a possible link between DTG and neural tube defects (birth defects of the brain and spinal cord that cause conditions such as spina bifida) in infants born to women using the drug at the time of conception. This potential safety concern was reported in May 2018 from a study in Botswana that found 4 cases of neural tube defects out of 426 women who became pregnant while taking DTG. Based on these preliminary findings, many countries advised pregnant women and women of childbearing potential to take efavirenz (EFV) instead.
New data from two large clinical trials comparing the efficacy and safety of DTG and EFV in Africa have now expanded the evidence base. The risks of neural tube defects are significantly lower than what the initial studies may have suggested.
The guidelines group also considered mathematical models of the benefits and harms associated with the two drugs; the values and preferences of people living with HIV, as well as factors related to implementation of HIV programmes in different countries, and cost.
DTG is a drug that is more effective, easier to take and has fewer side effects than alternative drugs that are currently used. DTG also has a high genetic barrier to developing drug resistance, which is important given the rising trend of resistance to EFV and nevirapine-based regimens. In 2019, 12 out of 18 countries surveyed by WHO reported pre-treatment drug resistance levels exceeding the recommended threshold of 10%.
All of above findings informed the decision to update the 2019 guidelines.