Betran Auvert and colleagues report findings from the Bophelo Pele project, a community-based HIV prevention intervention offering free voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC), that demonstrate an association between VMMC roll-out and a reduction in the incidence and prevalence of HIV in the community.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Randomized controlled trials have shown that voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) reduces HIV infection by 50% to 60% in sub-Saharan African populations; however, little is known about the population-level effect of adult male circumcision (MC) as an HIV prevention method. We assessed the effectiveness of VMMC roll-out on the levels of HIV in the South African township of Orange Farm where the first randomized controlled trial (RCT) to test the effect of VMMC on HIV acquisition was conducted in 2002–2005.
Methods and Findings
The Bophelo Pele project is a community-based campaign against HIV, which includes the roll-out of free VMMC. A baseline cross-sectional biomedical survey was conducted in 2007–2008 among a random sample of 1,998 men aged 15 to 49 (survey response rate 80.7%). In 2010–2011, we conducted a follow-up random survey among 3,338 men aged 15 to 49 (survey response rate 79.6%) to evaluate the project. Participants were interviewed, blood samples were collected and tested for HIV and recent HIV infection (using the BED HIV incidence assay), and MC status was assessed through a clinical examination. Data were analyzed using multivariate and propensity statistical methods.
Owing to the VMMCs performed in the context of the RCT and the Bophelo Pele project, the prevalence rate of adult MC increased from 0.12 (95% CI 0.10–0.14) to 0.53 (95% CI 0.51–0.55). Without these VMMCs, the HIV prevalence rate in 2010–2011 would have been 19% (95% CI 12%–26%) higher (0.147 instead of 0.123).
When comparing circumcised and uncircumcised men, no association of MC status with sexual behavior was detected. Among circumcised and uncircumcised men, the proportion consistently using condoms with non-spousal partners in the past 12 months was 44.0% (95% CI 41.7%–46.5%) versus 45.4% (95% CI 42.2%–48.6%) with weighted prevalence rate ratio (wPRR) = 0.94 (95% CI 0.85–1.03). The proportion having two or more non-spousal partners was 50.4% (95% CI 47.9%–52.9%) versus 44.2% (95% CI 41.3%–46.9%) with wPRR = 1.03 (95% CI 0.95–1.10).
We found a reduction of BED-estimated HIV incidence rate ranging from 57% (95% CI 29%–76%) to 61% (95% CI 14%–83%) among circumcised men in comparison with uncircumcised men.
Findings suggest that the roll-out of VMMC in Orange Farm is associated with a significant reduction of HIV levels in the community. The main limitation of the study is that it was not randomized and cannot prove a causal association. The roll-out of VMMC among adults in sub-Saharan Africa should be an international priority and needs to be accelerated to effectively combat the spread of HIV.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Every year about 2.2 million people (mostly in sub-Saharan Africa) become infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS. Consequently, prevention of HIV transmission is extremely important. Because HIV is most often spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner, individuals can reduce their risk of HIV infection by abstaining from sex, by having only one or a few sexual partners, and by always using a male or female condom. The results of three randomized controlled trials conducted in sub-Saharan Africa also suggest that voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC)—the removal of the foreskin, a loose fold of skin that covers the head of the penis—can reduce the heterosexual acquisition of HIV in men by 50%–60%. In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) recommended that VMMC should be offered as part of comprehensive HIV risk reduction programs in settings with generalized HIV epidemics and low levels of male circumcision and prioritized 14 east and southern African countries for VMMC roll-out.
Why Was This Study Done?
To date, about 3 million VMMCs have been performed for HIV prevention but it is not known whether “real world” VMMC roll-out programs will replicate the promising results obtained in the earlier trials. Indeed, there are fears that “risk compensation” (an increase in risky sexual behaviors after VMMC) might lead to increased HIV transmission in regions where VMMC is rolled out. In this study, the researchers use sequential cross-sectional surveys (studies that collect data from a group of people at a single time point) to investigate HIV infection levels in men in Orange Farm, a township in South Africa where one of the randomized controlled trials of VMMC was undertaken. The surveys were conducted before and after implementation of the Bophelo Pele project, a community-based campaign against HIV that was initiated in 2008 and that includes free VMMC.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers asked a random sample of nearly 2,000 men aged 15–49 years about their sexual behavior (for example, how many non-spousal partners they had had over the past year), and their intention to become circumcised if uncircumcised in a baseline survey in 2007–2008. The study participants were also offered HIV counseling and testing (including a test that indicated whether the participant had recently become HIV positive) and were examined to see whether they were already circumcised. A similar follow-up survey was conducted in 2010–2011 in which more than 3,000 men were invited to take part. At baseline, 12% of the men surveyed had been circumcised (a prevalence of circumcision of 12%) whereas in the follow-up survey, the overall prevalence of circumcision and the prevalence of circumcision among 15–29 year-olds (an important target group for VMMC roll-out) were 53% and 58%, respectively. The overall HIV prevalence at follow-up was 12% and the researchers estimated that without the VMMCs performed during the Bophelo Pele project and the preceding randomized control trial the prevalence of HIV among men living in Orange Farm would have been 15% in 2011. Using various cut-off values and corrections for a laboratory-based test to measure recent HIV infections, the researchers reported a reduction in the rate of new HIV infections (incidence rate) ranging from 57% to 61% among circumcised men in comparison with uncircumcised men. Importantly, there was no evidence of an association between circumcision status and risky sexual behavior but circumcision was associated with a reduction in the number of men who had recently become HIV positive.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that VMMC roll out in Orange Farm is associated with a reduction in HIV infection levels in the community and that circumcision is not associated with changes in sexual behavior that might affect HIV infection rates. They also suggest that VMMC roll-out is associated with a rapid uptake of VMMC, especially among young men, in an African community where male circumcision is not a social norm. Because this study is not a randomized controlled trial, it cannot establish cause and effect. Thus, although the observed reduction in HIV prevalence among circumcised men compared to uncircumcised men suggests that circumcision provided protection against HIV acquisition within the study population, the results do not conclusively prove this. The findings of this study nevertheless support the continuation and acceleration of the roll-out of adult VMMC in Africa although further studies are needed to show whether VMMC roll-out is also associated with a reduction in HIV acquisition among women and among uncircumcised men.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001509.
Information and resources on male circumcision for HIV prevention are available
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, summaries of recent research findings on HIV care and treatment, and information on male circumcision for the prevention of HIV transmission
Information is available from WHO and UNAIDS on all aspects of HIV/AIDS; the Clearinghouse on Male Circumcision, a resource provided by WHO, UNAIDS and other international bodies, provides information and tools for VMMC policy development and program implementation; a report entitled Progress in scaling up voluntary medical male circumcision for HIV prevention in East and Southern Africa, January-December 2011 is available
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV and AIDS in South Africa, on HIV prevention, and on circumcision and HIV (in English and Spanish)
A 2010 PLOS Medicine
Research Article by Pascale Lissouba et al. provides more information about the Bophelo Pele project
Personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert, through Nam/aidsmap, and through the charity website Healthtalkonline; a personal story about circumcision in Zimbabwe is available