In a prospective study, Craig Cohen and colleagues investigate the association between bacterial vaginosis and the risk of female-to-male HIV-1 transmission.
Bacterial vaginosis (BV), a disruption of the normal vaginal flora, has been associated with a 60% increased risk of HIV-1 acquisition in women and higher concentration of HIV-1 RNA in the genital tract of HIV-1–infected women. However, whether BV, which is present in up to half of African HIV-1–infected women, is associated with an increase in HIV-1 transmission to male partners has not been assessed in previous studies.
Methods and Findings
We assessed the association between BV on female-to-male HIV-1 transmission risk in a prospective study of 2,236 HIV-1–seropositive women and their HIV-1 uninfected male partners from seven African countries from a randomized placebo-controlled trial that enrolled heterosexual African adults who were seropositive for both HIV-1 and herpes simplex virus (HSV)-2, and their HIV-1–seronegative partners. Participants were followed for up to 24 months; every three months, vaginal swabs were obtained from female partners for Gram stain and male partners were tested for HIV-1. BV and normal vaginal flora were defined as a Nugent score of 7–10 and 0–3, respectively. To reduce misclassification, HIV-1 sequence analysis of viruses from seroconverters and their partners was performed to determine linkage of HIV-1 transmissions. Overall, 50 incident HIV-1 infections occurred in men in which the HIV-1–infected female partner had an evaluable vaginal Gram stain. HIV-1 incidence in men whose HIV-1–infected female partners had BV was 2.91 versus 0.76 per 100 person-years in men whose female partners had normal vaginal flora (hazard ratio 3.62, 95% CI 1.74–7.52). After controlling for sociodemographic factors, sexual behavior, male circumcision, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy, and plasma HIV-1 RNA levels in female partners, BV was associated with a greater than 3-fold increased risk of female-to-male HIV-1 transmission (adjusted hazard ratio 3.17, 95% CI 1.37–7.33).
This study identified an association between BV and increased risk of HIV-1 transmission to male partners. Several limitations may affect the generalizability of our results including: all participants underwent couples HIV counseling and testing and enrolled in an HIV-1 prevention trial, and index participants had a baseline CD4 count ≥250 cells/mm3 and were HSV-2 seropositive. Given the high prevalence of BV and the association of BV with increased risk of both female HIV-1 acquisition and transmission found in our study, if this association proves to be causal, BV could be responsible for a substantial proportion of new HIV-1 infections in Africa. Normalization of vaginal flora in HIV-1–infected women could mitigate female-to-male HIV-1 transmission.
Trial Registration: ClinicalTrials.com NCT00194519
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Since the first reported case of AIDS in 1981, the number of people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has risen steadily. By the end of 2010, 34 million people were living with HIV/AIDS. At the beginning of the epidemic more men than women were infected with HIV. Now, however, 50% of all adults infected with HIV are women and in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of HIV-positive people live, women account for 59% of people living with HIV. Moreover, among 15–24 year-olds, women are eight times more likely than men to be HIV-positive. This pattern of infection has developed because most people in sub-Saharan Africa contract HIV through unprotected heterosexual sex. The risk of HIV transmission for both men and women in Africa and elsewhere can be reduced by abstaining from sex, by only having one or a few partners, by always using condoms, and by male circumcision. In addition, several studies suggest that antiretroviral therapy (ART) greatly reduces HIV transmission.
Why Was This Study Done?
Unfortunately, in sub-Saharan Africa, only about a fifth of HIV-positive people are currently receiving ART, which means that there is an urgent need to find other effective ways to reduce HIV transmission in this region. In this prospective cohort study (a type of study that follows a group of people for some time to see which personal characteristics are associated with disease development), the researchers investigate whether bacterial vaginosis—a condition in which harmful bacteria disrupt the normal vaginal flora—increases the risk of female-to-male HIV transmission among African couples. Bacterial vaginosis, which is extremely common in sub-Saharan Africa, has been associated with an increased risk of HIV acquisition in women and induces viral replication and shedding in the vagina in HIV-positive women, which may mean that HIV-positive women with bacterial vaginosis are more likely to transmit HIV to their male partners than women without this condition. If this is the case, then interventions that reduce the incidence of bacterial vaginosis might be valuable HIV prevention strategies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers analyzed data collected from 2,236 heterosexual African couples enrolled in a clinical trial (the Partners in Prevention HSV/HIV Transmission Study) whose primary aim was to investigate whether suppression of herpes simplex virus infection could prevent HIV transmission. In all the couples, the woman was HIV-positive and the man was initially HIV-negative. The female partners were examined every three months for the presence of bacterial vaginosis and the male partners were tested regularly for HIV infection. The researchers also determined whether the men who became HIV-positive were infected with the same HIV strain as their partner to check that their infection had been acquired from this partner. The HIV incidence in men whose partners had bacterial vaginosis was 2.9 per 100 person-years (that is, 2.9 out of every 100 men became HIV-positive per year) whereas the HIV incidence in men whose partners had a normal vaginal flora was 0.76 per 100 person-years. After controlling for factors that might affect the risk of HIV transmission such as male circumcision and viral levels in female partner's blood, the researchers estimated that bacterial vaginosis was associated with a 3.17-fold increased risk of female-to-male HIV transmission in their study population.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that HIV-positive African women with bacterial vaginosis are more than three times as likely to transmit HIV to their male partners as those with a normal vaginal flora. It is possible that some unknown characteristic of the men in this study might have increased both their own risk of HIV infection and their partner's risk of bacterial vaginosis. Nevertheless, because bacterial vaginosis is so common in Africa (half of the women in this study had bacterial vaginosis at least once during follow-up) and because this condition is associated with both female HIV acquisition and transmission, these findings suggest that bacterial vaginosis could be responsible for a substantial proportion of new HIV infections in Africa. Normalization of vaginal flora in HIV-infected women by frequent presumptive treatment with antimicrobials (treatment with a curative dose of antibiotics without testing for bacterial vaginosis) or possibly by treatment with probiotics (live “good” bacteria) might, therefore, reduce female-to-male HIV transmission in sub-Saharan Africa.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001251.
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and infectious diseases on all aspects of HIV infection and AIDS and on bacterial vaginosis
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS, including specific information about HIV/AIDS and women; it also has information on bacterial vaginosis (in English and Spanish)
NAM/aidsmap provides basic information about HIV/AIDS, and summaries of recent research findings on HIV care and treatment, and information on bacterial vaginosis and HIV transmission (in several languages)
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS nonprofit group on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including detailed information on HIV and AIDS prevention, on women, HIV and AIDS and on HIV/AIDS in Africa (in English and Spanish); personal stories of women living with HIV are available; the website Healthtalkonline also provides personal stories about living with HIV
More information about the Partners in Prevention HSV/HIV Transmission Study is available