People living with HIV (PLWH) are common users of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). The main objective of this study was to study the frequency and patterns of SCAM natural products use in a large cohort of PLWH and to identify potential drug–drug interactions (DDIs) and the impact on their antiretroviral treatment (ART) adherence and efficacy.

This was a cross-sectional multicenter survey including 420 PLWH from different Spanish hospitals. Participants completed a face-to-face questionnaire on SCAM consumption and different sociodemographic and clinical data were collected. DDIs between SCAM and ART were identified and classified according to the Liverpool University Database and patient factors related to SCAM consumption were assessed.

In total, 420 participants were included (82.6% male, mean age 47 years); 209 patients (49.8%) were taking at least one SCAM. The most consumed SCAM were:

  • green, black and red tea (n=146, 25.4%),
  • ginger (n=26, 4.5%),
  • fish oil (n=25, 4.4%),
  • cannabis (n=24, 4.2%).

An ART based on integrase inhibitors was the only factor independently associated with SCAM consumption (OR 1.54, 95% CI 1.04 to 2.26). 50 potential SCAM–ART interactions in 43 (20.6%) patients taking SCAM were identified, being clinically significant in 80% of the cases. SCAM products most frequently involved with a potential significant DDI were supplements containing divalent cations (n=11) and garlic (n=7). No differences in ART efficacy and adherence were observed between patients with and without SCAM consumption.

The authors concluded that almost 50% of patients were taking at least one SCAM product and its use was associated with an integrase inhibitor based ART. One out of every six patients was at risk of presenting with an interaction between a SCAM and their ART, confirming the need to review continuously the use of SCAM as part of the medication review process.

So, the authors found that half of all PLWHs use some form of SCAM (whether I would classify tea as a SCAM is a different question). They also point out that this might put many PLWHs at risk. What I don’t understand is why they do not take the next logical step and ask what the benefits of the SCAMs for PLWHs are.

Allow me to answer this question: they are zero or very close to zero!

And this means that SCAMs generate a risk for PLWHs without creating any meaningful benefit. In other words the risk-benefit balance fails to be positive.

I think that this is an important point which needs to be stressed clearly in the conclusions. Therefore, I suggest to re-formulate them as follows:

Almost 50% of patients were taking at least one SCAM product. One out of every six patients was at risk of presenting with an interaction between a SCAM and their ART. The SCAMs used convey no appreciatable benefit. Therefore, SCAM use fails to generate more good than harm. It follows that responsible healthcare professionals should discurage SCAM use.

3 Responses to So-called alternative medicine (SCAM) is worringly popular with HIV-positive individuals

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