A systematic review by Laith Abu-Raddad and colleagues collates and analyzes the epidemiology of HIV among men who have sex with men in Middle Eastern and North African countries.
Men who have sex with men (MSM) bear a disproportionately higher burden of HIV infection than the general population. MSM in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are a largely hidden population because of a prevailing stigma towards this type of sexual behavior, thereby limiting the ability to assess infection transmission patterns among them. It is widely perceived that data are virtually nonexistent on MSM and HIV in this region. The objective of this review was to delineate, for the first time, the evidence on the epidemiology of HIV among MSM in MENA.
Methods and Findings
This was a systematic review of all biological, behavioral, and other related data on HIV and MSM in MENA. Sources of data included PubMed (Medline), international organizations' reports and databases, country-level reports and databases including governmental and nongovernmental organization publications, and various other institutional documents. This review showed that onsiderable data are available on MSM and HIV in MENA. While HIV prevalence continues at low levels among different MSM groups, HIV epidemics appear to be emerging in at least few countries, with a prevalence reaching up to 28% among certain MSM groups. By 2008, the contribution of MSM transmission to the total HIV notified cases increased and exceeded 25% in several countries. The high levels of risk behavior (4–14 partners on average in the last six months among different MSM populations) and of biomarkers of risks (such as herpes simplex virus type 2 at 3%–54%), the overall low rate of consistent condom use (generally below 25%), the relative frequency of male sex work (20%–76%), and the substantial overlap with heterosexual risk behavior and injecting drug use suggest potential for further spread.
This systematic review and data synthesis indicate that HIV epidemics appear to be emerging among MSM in at least a few MENA countries and could already be in a concentrated state among several MSM groups. There is an urgent need to expand HIV surveillance and access to HIV testing, prevention, and treatment services in a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to prevent the worst of HIV transmission among MSM in the Middle East and North Africa.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
AIDS first emerged in the early 1980s among gay men living in the US. But, as the disease rapidly spread, it became clear that AIDS also affects heterosexual men and women. Now three decades on, more than 30 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV is most often spread by having unprotected sex with an infected partner and, globally, most sexual transmission of HIV now occurs during heterosexual sex. However, 5%–10% of all new HIV infections still occur in men who have sex with men (MSM, a term that encompasses homosexual, bisexual, and transgender men, and heterosexual men who sometimes have sex with men). In some countries, male-to-male sexual contact remains the most important transmission route. Moreover, although the global prevalence of HIV infection (the proportion the world's population infected with HIV) has stabilized, the prevalence of HIV infection among MSM seems to be increasing in multiple countries and new and resurgent HIV epidemics among MSM populations are being frequently reported.
Why Was This Study Done?
In the US and the UK, the MSM population is visible and has helped to raise awareness about the risks of HIV transmission through male-to-male sexual contact. In many other countries, MSM are much less visible, fearing discrimination, stigmatization (being considered socially unacceptable) or arrest. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA, a geographical region that encompasses countries that share historical, socio-cultural, linguistic and religious characteristics), MSM are the most hidden HIV risk group. Consequently, very little is known about HIV transmission patterns among MSM in MENA. Indeed, it is widely thought that there is virtually no information available on the epidemiology (causes, distribution, and control) of HIV among MSM in this region. In this systematic review and data synthesis, the researchers use predefined search criteria to identify all the published and unpublished data on the epidemiology of HIV among MSM in MENA and combine (synthesize) these data to produce a coherent picture of the HIV epidemic in this potentially key group of people for HIV transmission in this region.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 26 articles and 51 other country-level reports and sources of data that included data on the prevalence of male-to-male sexual contact, HIV transmission, levels of high-risk behavior, and the extent of knowledge about HIV among MSM in MENA. The prevalence of HIV infection among MSM was low in most countries but high in others. For example, the infection rate in Pakistan was 27.6% among one MSM group. Importantly, there was some evidence of increasing HIV prevalence and emerging epidemics among MSM in the region. Thus, by 2008, MSM transmission was responsible for more than a quarter of notified cases of HIV in several countries. Worryingly, MSM were involved in several types of HIV-related high risk behavior. For example, they had, on average, between 4 and 14 sexual partners in the past six months, their rates of consistent condom use were generally below 25% and, in some countries, MSM frequently reported injecting drug use, another common mode of HIV transmission. In addition, 20%–75.5% of MSM exchanged sex for money and contact between MSM and female sex workers and other female sexual partners was often common. Finally, although the level of basic knowledge about HIV/AIDS was high, the level of comprehensive knowledge was limited with a high proportion of MSM perceiving their risk of contracting HIV as low.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that there is considerable and increasing data about HIV transmission and risk behavior among MSM in MENA. However, the quality of this evidence varies greatly. Little has been collected over time in individual populations and, because only the visible part of the MSM populations in many MENA countries has been sampled, these findings may not be representative of all MSM in this region. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that HIV epidemics are emerging among MSM in several MENA countries. Importantly, the high levels of risk behaviors practiced by many MSM in MENA mean that MSM could become the pivotal risk group for HIV transmission in this region in the next decade. There is, therefore, an urgent need to expand HIV surveillance and access to HIV testing, prevention and treatment services among MSM in this region to limit the size of the HIV epidemic.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000444.
Information about the status of the HIV epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa can be found in the World Bank/UNAIDS/WHO report Characterizing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa: Time for strategic action
Information about the global HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men can be found in the World Bank report The Global HIV Epidemics among Men Who Have Sex with Men
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
HIV InSite has comprehensive information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV transmission and transmission in gay men and other MSM and on safer sex
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV, AIDS and men who have sex with men and on HIV and AIDS prevention (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have information about HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men (in English and Spanish)