We showed that simple anthropometric measures were at least as good as DXA-derived measures to diagnose lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy in African women on ART. The best predictors of lipoatrophy in women were the anthropometric variables tricep and thigh skinfold thicknesses; and the DXA-derived variables percentage lower limb fat and percentage lower limb fat/height. The best predictors of lipohypertrophy in women were the anthropometric variable waist/hip ratio and the DXA-derived variable percentage trunk fat/percentage limb fat. Women with lipoatrophy had considerably smaller limb circumferences, limb skinfold thicknesses and lower percentages of limb fat than women without lipoatrophy, despite similar BMIs. Lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy were both more common in women than in the small sample of men.
Previous studies, conducted in high-income countries, developed objective measures for lipodystrophy, thus combining lipoatrophic and lipohypertrophic individuals [15–17]. They proposed the use of fat mass ratio (FMR), defined as the ratio between the percentage of trunk fat mass and the percentage of lower-limb fat mass. We however sought to investigate lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy as separate entities. Identification of lipoatrophy is important as it is an adverse antiretroviral drug reaction, which improves on switching antiretroviral drugs . Although lipohypertrophy is thought to be a consequence of treating HIV infection rather than an adverse antiretroviral drug reaction , like lipoatrophy, it is associated with an increased risk of vascular disease  therefore it is worth identifying so that appropriate screening and prevention interventions can be implemented.
Despite the subjective nature of assessing lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy by using patient self-report, previous studies have shown a strong correlation between patient and physician reported lipodystrophy scores [27–29]. In South Africa, as well as in many other African countries, nurses, rather than physicians, prescribe antiretroviral therapy and follow up patients. For these reasons we used patient self-report [5, 6] as the reference measure to define lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy.
Our study, like several others [11, 21], showed a significant association between lipoatrophy and time on ART, and time on d4T in particular. As South Africa has only recently phased out d4T, and AZT is still being used, it is not unexpected that a quarter of the women and a tenth of the men, had lipoatrophy. The prevalence of lipoatrophy found in this study is not easy to compare with other studies as studies from high-income countries focussed on men [12, 24], while most studies from Africa looked at the prevalence of lipodystrophy [30–32] rather than studying the two entities of lipoatrophy and lipodystrophy separately. Our finding that tricep skinfold thickness was a predictor of lipoatrophy is supported by other studies. George et al. , using a small sample of HIV-infected South Africans, found that after 2 years of exposure to ART, patients had significantly decreased tricep skinfold thicknesses. Similarly, a Ugandan study using a sample of HIV-infected men and women , found that decreased tricep skinfold thicknesses was associated with the use of AZT.
There were some limitations to our study. The cross sectional design, while allowing us to make associations, does not allow us to infer causality. With changes in fat distribution, repeated objective measures would have given us a better reference standard than patient report, even though patient report is commonly used [5, 6]. We did not have enough men with lipoatrophy or lipohypertrophy, to explore predictive anthropometric and DXA-derived variables. Finally, the likelihood ratios for the most predictive anthropometric and DXA-derived variables were only weakly diagnostic of self-report lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy. Future research of longitudinal studies in African cohorts, using changes in DXA-derived variables as the reference standard, is needed to confirm the value of anthropometric measures for the diagnosis of lipoatrophy and lipohypertrophy.