Dating back to the first epidemic among injection drug users in 1989, the Yunnan province has had the highest number of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infections in China. However, the molecular epidemiology of HIV-1 in Yunnan has not been fully characterized.
Methods and Findings
Using immunoassays, we identified 103,015 accumulated cases of HIV-1 infections in Yunnan between 1989 and 2004. We studied 321 patients representing Yunnan's 16 prefectures from four risk groups, 11 ethnic populations, and ten occupations. We identified three major circulating subtypes: C/CRF07_BC/CRF08_BC (53%), CRF01_AE (40.5%), and B (6.5%) by analyzing the sequence of p17, which is part of the gag gene. For patients with known risk factors, 90.9% of injection drug users had C/CRF07_BC/CRF08_BC viruses, whereas 85.4% of CRF01_AE infections were acquired through sexual transmission. No distinct segregation of CRF01_AE viruses was found among the Dai ethnic group. Geographically, C/CRF07_BC/CRF08_BC was found throughout the province, while CRF01_AE was largely confined to the prefectures bordering Myanmar. Furthermore, C/CRF07_BC/CRF08_BC viruses were found to consist of a group of viruses, including C, CRF08_BC, CRF07_BC, and new BC recombinants, based on the characterization of their reverse transcriptase genes.
This is the first report of a province-wide HIV-1 molecular epidemiological study in Yunnan. While C/CRF07_BC/CRF08_BC and CRF01_AE are codominant, the discovery of many sexually transmitted CRF01_AE cases is new and suggests that this subtype may lead to a new epidemic in the general Chinese population. We discuss implications of our results for understanding the evolution of the HIV-1 pandemic and for vaccine development.
This is a molecular epidemiology study of circulating HIV strains and subtypes in Yunnan province, which has China's largest number of HIV-infected individuals.
The first human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) cases in China were seen in 1989 in Yunnan, a region of south-western China. This area borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam, and is a major entry point for illegal drugs into China. The initial HIV outbreak in this area was in injecting drug users, but HIV is beginning to affect other groups of people in the Yunnan province and is becoming more common across China. There is still not much known about the different types of HIV virus in China and which parts of the population are most likely to be infected. This knowledge is important because it can help people to understand how the epidemic started and how it is likely to spread in the future, and because it helps direct efforts for HIV education and prevention. It is also necessary for the future design of appropriate HIV vaccines.
Why Was This Study Done?
The Yunnan province has the highest rate of HIV-infected individuals in China. It is an important entry point of new HIV virus types into China, and some of the HIV types found in patients in other parts of China appear to have spread from Yunnan. A group of researchers from the United States and China wanted to look at the different types of HIV virus that were infecting people in the Yunnan province and to work out how these types had evolved over the course of the HIV epidemic in China. They focused on human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), the most common form of HIV virus worldwide and also the most infectious. There are at least nine distinct subtypes of HIV-1, and the virus continues to evolve and to form new subtypes.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
They collected blood samples from 321 HIV-infected individuals who represented a broad cross-section of the population of Yunnan (people from all geographic parts of the province, 11 ethnic populations, different occupations, etc.) and analyzed the genetic information of the viruses found in these blood samples. Because HIV evolves very rapidly, the genetic information differs between different virus subtypes, and the researchers could therefore tell which subtypes were infecting which subsets of the population. The researchers identified three distinct subtypes of HIV-1: “B” (in about 6.5% of the samples), a group of “C” variants (C/CRF07_BC/CRF08_BC in 53% of the samples), and CRF01_AE (in 40.5%). The CRF01_AE subtype had not previously been reported at such high levels in the Chinese population, and people who were thought to have been infected with HIV through sexual contact (as opposed to contaminated needles) were more likely to be infected with that particular subtype.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results show a dynamic and evolving pattern of HIV types in the Yunnan province, segregating among different parts of the population. Sexual transmission appears to be on the rise, suggesting that the epidemic could spread rapidly from high-risk groups such as drug users to the general population. HIV/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) education and prevention efforts in the general population are therefore urgently needed. It is also likely that some of the developments of the HIV epidemic in the Yunnan province will be similar in other parts of China as the various subtypes spread. The results of the study also have implications for future HIV vaccine development. Given the range of subtypes, it will be necessary either to develop vaccines that can protect against all the circulating subtypes, or to have a cocktail of several vaccines that each protects against some of them.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030443.
Information from AVERT, an international AIDS charity on HIV subtypes and HIV in China
The UNAIDS on AIDS in Asia
The China AIDS Network—a charity devoted to AIDS research in China