In a randomized trial of a behavioral intervention among substance-using men who have sex with men, aimed at reducing sexual risk behavior, Mansergh and colleagues fail to find evidence of a reduction in risk from the intervention.
Substance use during sex is associated with sexual risk behavior among men who have sex with men (MSM), and MSM continue to be the group at highest risk for incident HIV in the United States. The objective of this study is to test the efficacy of a group-based, cognitive-behavioral intervention to reduce risk behavior of substance-using MSM, compared to a randomized attention-control group and a nonrandomized standard HIV-testing group.
Methods and Findings
Participants (n = 1,686) were enrolled in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco and randomized to a cognitive-behavioral intervention or attention-control comparison. The nonrandomized group received standard HIV counseling and testing. Intervention group participants received six 2-h group sessions focused on reducing substance use and sexual risk behavior. Attention-control group participants received six 2-h group sessions of videos and discussion of MSM community issues unrelated to substance use, sexual risk, and HIV/AIDS. All three groups received HIV counseling and testing at baseline. The sample reported high-risk behavior during the past 3 mo prior to their baseline visit: 67% reported unprotected anal sex, and 77% reported substance use during their most recent anal sex encounter with a nonprimary partner. The three groups significantly (p<0.05) reduced risk behavior (e.g., unprotected anal sex reduced by 32% at 12-mo follow-up), but were not different (p>0.05) from each other at 3-, 6-, and 12-mo follow-up. Outcomes for the 2-arm comparisons were not significantly different at 12-mo follow-up (e.g., unprotected anal sex, odds ratio = 1.14, confidence interval = 0.86–1.51), nor at earlier time points. Similar results were found for each outcome variable in both 2- and 3-arm comparisons.
These results for reducing sexual risk behavior of substance-using MSM are consistent with results of intervention trials for other populations, which collectively suggest critical challenges for the field of HIV behavioral interventions. Several mechanisms may contribute to statistically indistinguishable reductions in risk outcomes by trial group. More explicit debate is needed in the behavioral intervention field about appropriate scientific designs and methods. As HIV prevention increasingly competes for behavior-change attention alongside other “chronic” diseases and mental health issues, new approaches may better resonate with at-risk groups.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
AIDS first emerged in the early 1980s among gay men living in the US. As the disease spread around the world, 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 gay, bisexual, transgendered, and heterosexual men who sometimes have sex with men) and, in several high-income countries, male-to-male sexual contact remains the most important HIV transmission route. In the US, for example, more than half of the approximately 50,000 people who become infected with HIV every year do so through male-to-male sexual contact.
Why Was This Study Done?
In countries where MSM are the group at highest risk of HIV infection, any intervention that reduces HIV transmission in MSM should have a major effect on the overall HIV infection rate. Among MSM, sexual behaviors that increase the risk of HIV infection (for example, not using a condom, having anal sex, having sex with a partner of unknown HIV status, and having sex with many partners) are associated with the use of alcohol and noninjection drugs (for example, inhaled amyl nitrite or poppers) during or shortly before sexual encounters. In this study (Project MIX), the researchers investigate whether a group-based behavioral intervention reduces sexual risk behavior in substance-using MSM.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers recruited substance-using MSM from four US cities who had had risky sex at least once in the past 6 months. Participants were randomized to a cognitive-behavioral intervention or to an attention-control group; a third, nonrandomized group of MSM formed a standard HIV counseling and testing only group. All the groups had HIV counseling and testing at the start of the study and completed a questionnaire about their substance use and sexual risk behavior during their most recent anal sex encounter. The cognitive-behavior group then received six weekly 2-hour group sessions focused on reducing substance use and sexual risk behavior by helping the men change their thinking (cognition) and behavior regarding sexual risk taking. The attention-control group received six group sessions about general MSM issues such as relationships, excluding discussion of substance use, and sexual risk behavior. The participants in both of these groups completed the questionnaire about their substance use and sexual risk behavior again at 3, 6, and 12 months after the group sessions; the participants in the standard HIV counseling and testing group completed the questionnaire again about 5 months after completing the first questionnaire (to control for the time taken by the other two groups to complete the intervention). At baseline, about 67% of the participants reported unprotected anal sex and 77% reported substance use during their most recent anal sex encounter with a nonprimary partner. At the 3-month follow-up, the incidence of sexual risk behavior had fallen to about 43% in all three groups; the incidence of substance use during sex had fallen to about 50%. Risk taking and substance use remained at these levels in the intervention and attention-control groups at the later follow-up time points.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that this cognitive-behavioral intervention is no better at reducing sexual risk taking among substance-using MSM than is an unrelated video-discussion group or standard HIV counseling and testing. One explanation for this negative result might be that brief counseling is especially effective with people who are ready for a change such as MSM willing to enroll in an intervention trial of this type. Alternatively, just being in the trial might have encouraged all the participants to self-report reduced risk behavior. Thus, alternative scientific designs and methods might be needed to find behavioral interventions that can effectively reduce HIV transmission among substance-using MSM and other people at high risk of HIV infection. Importantly, however, these findings raise the question of whether more extensive, multilevel interventions or broader lifestyle and positive health approaches (rather than single-level or single-subject behavioral interventions) might be needed to reduce sexual risk behavior among substance-using MSM.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000329.
Information is available from the US Department of Health and Human Services on HIV prevention programs, research, and policy
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, on substance abuse and HIV/AIDS, and on safer sex
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS nonprofit, on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV, AIDS, and men who have sex with men and on drink, drugs, and sex (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also have information for the public and for professionals about HIV/AIDS among men who have sex with men (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse has information on HIV/AIDS and drug abuse, including a resource aimed at educating teenagers about the link between drug abuse and the spread of HIV in the US (in English and Spanish)