Erik Volz and colleagues use HIV genetic information from a cohort of men who have sex with men in Detroit, USA to dissect the timing of onward transmission during HIV infection.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Conventional epidemiological surveillance of infectious diseases is focused on characterization of incident infections and estimation of the number of prevalent infections. Advances in methods for the analysis of the population-level genetic variation of viruses can potentially provide information about donors, not just recipients, of infection. Genetic sequences from many viruses are increasingly abundant, especially HIV, which is routinely sequenced for surveillance of drug resistance mutations. We conducted a phylodynamic analysis of HIV genetic sequence data and surveillance data from a US population of men who have sex with men (MSM) and estimated incidence and transmission rates by stage of infection.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed 662 HIV-1 subtype B sequences collected between October 14, 2004, and February 24, 2012, from MSM in the Detroit metropolitan area, Michigan. These sequences were cross-referenced with a database of 30,200 patients diagnosed with HIV infection in the state of Michigan, which includes clinical information that is informative about the recency of infection at the time of diagnosis. These data were analyzed using recently developed population genetic methods that have enabled the estimation of transmission rates from the population-level genetic diversity of the virus. We found that genetic data are highly informative about HIV donors in ways that standard surveillance data are not. Genetic data are especially informative about the stage of infection of donors at the point of transmission. We estimate that 44.7% (95% CI, 42.2%–46.4%) of transmissions occur during the first year of infection.
In this study, almost half of transmissions occurred within the first year of HIV infection in MSM. Our conclusions may be sensitive to un-modeled intra-host evolutionary dynamics, un-modeled sexual risk behavior, and uncertainty in the stage of infected hosts at the time of sampling. The intensity of transmission during early infection may have significance for public health interventions based on early treatment of newly diagnosed individuals.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Since the first recorded case of AIDS in 1981, the number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has risen steadily. About 34 million people are currently HIV-positive, and about 2.5 million people become newly infected with HIV every year. Because HIV is usually transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected partner, individuals can reduce their risk of infection by abstaining from sex, by having only one or a few partners, and by always using condoms. Most people do not become ill immediately after infection with HIV, although some develop a short flu-like illness. The next stage of HIV infection, which may last more than ten years, also has no major symptoms, but during this stage, HIV slowly destroys immune system cells. Eventually, the immune system can no longer fight off infections by other disease-causing organisms, and HIV-positive people then develop one or more life-threatening AIDS-defining conditions, including unusual infections and specific types of cancer. HIV infection can be controlled, but not cured, by taking a daily cocktail of antiretroviral drugs.
Why Was This Study Done?
The design of effective programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS depends on knowing how HIV transmissibility varies over the course of HIV infection. Consider, for example, a prevention strategy that focuses on increasing treatment rates: antiretroviral drugs, in addition to reducing illness and death among HIV-positive people, reduce HIV transmission from HIV-positive individuals. “Treatment as prevention” can only block transmissions that occur after diagnosis and entry into care. However, the transmissibility of HIV per sexual contact depends on a person's viral load, which peaks during early HIV infection, when people are often unaware of their HIV status and may still be following the high-risk patterns of sexual behavior that caused their own infection. Epidemiological surveillance data (information on HIV infections within populations) can be used to estimate how many new HIV infections occur within a population annually (HIV incidence) and the proportion of the population that is HIV-positive (HIV prevalence), but cannot be used to estimate the timing of transmission events. In this study, the researchers use “phylodynamic analysis” to estimate HIV incidence and prevalence and the timing of HIV transmission during infection. HIV, like many other viruses, rapidly accumulates genetic changes. The timing of transmission influences the pattern of these changes. Viral phylodynamic analysis—the quantitative study of how epidemiological, immunological, and evolutionary processes shape viral phylogenies (evolutionary trees)—can therefore provide estimates of transmission dynamics.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers obtained HIV sequence data (collected for routine surveillance of antiretroviral resistance mutations) and epidemiological surveillance data (including information on the stage of infection at diagnosis) for 662 HIV-positive men who have sex with men living in the Detroit metropolitan area of Michigan. They constructed a phylogenetic tree from the sequences using a “relaxed clock” approach and then fitted an epidemiological model (a mathematical model that represents the progress of individual patients through various stages of HIV infection) to the sequence data. Their approach, which integrates surveillance data and genetic data, yielded estimates of HIV incidence and prevalence among the study population similar to those obtained from surveillance data alone. However, it also provided information about HIV transmission that could not be obtained from surveillance data alone. In particular, it allowed the researchers to estimate that, in the current HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men in Detroit, 44.7% of HIV transmissions occur during the first year of infection.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The robustness of these findings depends on the validity of the assumptions included in the researchers' population genetic model and on the accuracy of the data fed into the model, and may not be generalizable to other cities or to other risk groups. Nevertheless, the findings of this analysis, which can be repeated in any setting where HIV sequence data for individual patients can be linked to patient-specific clinical and behavioral information, have important implications for HIV control strategies based on the early treatment of newly diagnosed individuals. Because relatively few infected individuals are diagnosed during early HIV infection, when the HIV transmission rate is high, it is unlikely, suggest the researchers, that the “treatment as prevention” strategy will effectively control the spread of HIV unless there are very high rates of HIV testing and treatment.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001568.
This study is further discussed in a PLOS Medicine
Perspective by Timothy Hallett
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on HIV infection and AIDS
NAM/aidsmap provides basic information about HIV/AIDS and summaries of recent research findings on HIV care and treatment
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity, on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV treatment as prevention (in English and Spanish)
The PLOS Medicine Collection Investigating the Impact of Treatment on New HIV Infections provides more information about HIV treatment as prevention
A PLOS Computational Biology Topic Page (a review article that is a published copy of record of a dynamic version of the article as found in Wikipedia) about viral phylodynamics is available
The US National Institute of Health–funded HIV Sequence Database contains HIV sequences and tools to analyze these sequences
Patient stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert; the charity website Healthtalkonline also provides personal stories about living with HIV