Laith Abu-Raddad and colleagues assess the current state of knowledge of the HIV epidemic among people who inject drugs in the Middle East and North Africa.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
It is perceived that little is known about the epidemiology of HIV infection among people who inject drugs (PWID) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The primary objective of this study was to assess the status of the HIV epidemic among PWID in MENA by describing HIV prevalence and incidence. Secondary objectives were to describe the risk behavior environment and the HIV epidemic potential among PWID, and to estimate the prevalence of injecting drug use in MENA.
Methods and Findings
This was a systematic review following the PRISMA guidelines and covering 23 MENA countries. PubMed, Embase, regional and international databases, as well as country-level reports were searched up to December 16, 2013. Primary studies reporting (1) the prevalence/incidence of HIV, other sexually transmitted infections, or hepatitis C virus (HCV) among PWIDs; or (2) the prevalence of injecting or sexual risk behaviors, or HIV knowledge among PWID; or (3) the number/proportion of PWID in MENA countries, were eligible for inclusion. The quality, quantity, and geographic coverage of the data were assessed at country level. Risk of bias in predefined quality domains was described to assess the quality of available HIV prevalence measures. After multiple level screening, 192 eligible reports were included in the review. There were 197 HIV prevalence measures on a total of 58,241 PWID extracted from reports, and an additional 226 HIV prevalence measures extracted from the databases.
We estimated that there are 626,000 PWID in MENA (range: 335,000–1,635,000, prevalence of 0.24 per 100 adults). We found evidence of HIV epidemics among PWID in at least one-third of MENA countries, most of which are emerging concentrated epidemics and with HIV prevalence overall in the range of 10%–15%. Some of the epidemics have however already reached considerable levels including some of the highest HIV prevalence among PWID globally (87.1% in Tripoli, Libya). The relatively high prevalence of sharing needles/syringes (18%–28% in the last injection), the low levels of condom use (20%–54% ever condom use), the high levels of having sex with sex workers and of men having sex with men (15%–30% and 2%–10% in the last year, respectively), and of selling sex (5%–29% in the last year), indicate a high injecting and sexual risk environment. The prevalence of HCV (31%–64%) and of sexually transmitted infections suggest high levels of risk behavior indicative of the potential for more and larger HIV epidemics.
Our study identified a large volume of HIV-related biological and behavioral data among PWID in the MENA region. The coverage and quality of the data varied between countries. There is robust evidence for HIV epidemics among PWID in multiple countries, most of which have emerged within the last decade and continue to grow. The lack of sufficient evidence in some MENA countries does not preclude the possibility of hidden epidemics among PWID in these settings. With the HIV epidemic among PWID in overall a relatively early phase, there is a window of opportunity for prevention that should not be missed through the provision of comprehensive programs, including scale-up of harm reduction services and expansion of surveillance systems.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
About 35 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and around 2.3 million people become newly infected every year. HIV is mainly transmitted through unprotected sex with an infected partner. However, people who inject drugs (PWID) have a particularly high risk of HIV infection because blood transfer through needle and syringe sharing can transmit the virus. Worldwide, 5%–10% of all HIV-positive people are PWID but in some regions of the world the fraction of all HIV-positive people that are PWID is even higher. To meet the global health challenge of the high HIV prevalence (the proportion of a population that has a specific disease) among PWID, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) and other international bodies endorse harm reduction strategies to prevent risky injection behaviors among PWID. These strategies include education and the provision of clean needles, syringes, and opioid substitution therapy.
Why Was This Study Done?
To maximize the effect of these harm-reduction strategies in specific regions, it is important to understand the status of the HIV epidemic among PWID. Although surveillance systems provide the information on HIV infection needed to track the progress of HIV epidemics among PWID in many regions, little is known about the HIV epidemic among PWID in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA, a geographical region that encompasses countries that share historical, socio-cultural, linguistic, and religious characteristics). Several factors contribute to the likelihood of individuals injecting drugs in MENA. For example, Afghanistan (a MENA country) produces most of the world's supply of heroin, which is largely trafficked through Iran and Pakistan (also MENA countries). In this systematic review and data synthesis, the researchers use predefined criteria to identify all the published and unpublished data on HIV prevalence and incidence (the number of new cases of a disease in a population in a given time) among PWID in MENA and combine (synthesize) these data to assess the status of the HIV epidemic in this key population for HIV transmission in MENA.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 192 reports that reported the prevalence/incidence of HIV, other sexually transmitted infections and infection with hepatitis C virus (HCV, another virus transmitted through drug injection) among PWID, the prevalence of injecting or sexual risk behaviors among PWID, or the number/proportion of PWID in MENA. From these data, the researchers estimated that there are about 600,000 PWID in MENA (a prevalence of 0.24 per 100 adults, which is comparable with figures from other regions). The data provided evidence for HIV epidemics among PWID in at least a third of MENA countries, mainly emerging concentrated epidemics (epidemics that are still growing but in which HIV infection and transmission are already considerable). HIV prevalence among PWID in MENA varied considerably, reaching an extremely high prevalence of 87.1% in Tripoli, Libya. The data also revealed a high injecting and sexual risk environment among PWID in MENA (for example, on average, about a quarter of PWID shared a needle or syringe in their most recent injection and only a third reported ever using condoms) that, together with a high prevalence of HCV and sexually transmitted infections among PWID, indicates the potential for more and larger HIV epidemics.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that substantial amounts of HIV-related data have been collected from PWID in MENA but that the coverage and quality of these data vary widely between countries. They provide robust evidence for growing HIV epidemics, most of which have emerged within the past decade, among PWID in several MENA countries, but do not preclude the possibility of hidden epidemics among PWID in additional MENA countries. Overall, these findings suggest that the HIV epidemic among PWID in MENA is at a relatively early stage. This window of opportunity to control the emerging epidemics should not be missed, warn the researchers. HIV surveillance among PWID in MENA must be expanded to detect and monitor emerging and growing HIV epidemics, they suggest, and to inform effective HIV policy and programming. Improvements in HIV prevention and treatment among PWID in MENA are essential, they conclude, to confront the growing HIV problem in this population and, to prevent the onward transmission of HIV from PWID to other population groups.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001663.
A 2010 report produced by the World Bank, UNAIDS, and WHO provides information on the status of the HIV epidemic in the Middle East and North Africa; the UNAIDS Middle East and North Africa Regional Report on AIDS 2011 provides further information
The 2013 UNAIDS World AIDS Day Report provides up-to-date information about the AIDS epidemic and efforts to halt it
The Middle East and North Africa Harm Reduction Association (MENAHRA) provides information about harm reduction efforts, services, and programs in the Middle East and North Africa; Harm Reduction International provides information about harm reduction concepts, strategies, programs, and publications globally
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 people who inject drugs and HIV/AIDS and on harm reduction and HIV prevention (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute on Drug Abuse also provides information about drug abuse and HIV/AIDS (in English and Spanish)
Personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert, Nam/aidsmap, and Healthtalkonline