Using different approaches to investigate HIV transmission patterns, Justin Lessler and colleagues find that extra-community HIV introductions are frequent and likely play a role in sustaining the epidemic in the Rakai community.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
It is often assumed that local sexual networks play a dominant role in HIV spread in sub-Saharan Africa. The aim of this study was to determine the extent to which continued HIV transmission in rural communities—home to two-thirds of the African population—is driven by intra-community sexual networks versus viral introductions from outside of communities.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed the spatial dynamics of HIV transmission in rural Rakai District, Uganda, using data from a cohort of 14,594 individuals within 46 communities. We applied spatial clustering statistics, viral phylogenetics, and probabilistic transmission models to quantify the relative contribution of viral introductions into communities versus community- and household-based transmission to HIV incidence. Individuals living in households with HIV-incident (n = 189) or HIV-prevalent (n = 1,597) persons were 3.2 (95% CI: 2.7–3.7) times more likely to be HIV infected themselves compared to the population in general, but spatial clustering outside of households was relatively weak and was confined to distances <500 m. Phylogenetic analyses of gag and env genes suggest that chains of transmission frequently cross community boundaries. A total of 95 phylogenetic clusters were identified, of which 44% (42/95) were two individuals sharing a household. Among the remaining clusters, 72% (38/53) crossed community boundaries. Using the locations of self-reported sexual partners, we estimate that 39% (95% CI: 34%–42%) of new viral transmissions occur within stable household partnerships, and that among those infected by extra-household sexual partners, 62% (95% CI: 55%–70%) are infected by sexual partners from outside their community. These results rely on the representativeness of the sample and the quality of self-reported partnership data and may not reflect HIV transmission patterns outside of Rakai.
Our findings suggest that HIV introductions into communities are common and account for a significant proportion of new HIV infections acquired outside of households in rural Uganda, though the extent to which this is true elsewhere in Africa remains unknown. Our results also suggest that HIV prevention efforts should be implemented at spatial scales broader than the community and should target key populations likely responsible for introductions into communities.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
About 35 million people (25 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa) are currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and about 2.3 million people become newly infected every year. HIV destroys immune system cells, leaving infected individuals susceptible to other infections. HIV infection can be controlled by taking antiretroviral drugs (antiretroviral therapy, or ART) daily throughout life. Although originally available only to people living in wealthy countries, recent political efforts mean that 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries now have access to ART. However, ART does not cure HIV infection, so prevention of viral transmission remains extremely important. 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 one or a few partners, and by using condoms. Male circumcision also reduces HIV transmission. In addition to reducing illness and death among HIV-positive people, ART also reduces HIV transmission.
Why Was This Study Done?
Effective HIV control requires an understanding of how HIV spreads through sexual networks. These networks include sexual partnerships between individuals in households, between community members in different households, and between individuals from different communities. Local sexual networks (household and intra-community sexual partnerships) are sometimes assumed to be the dominant driving force in HIV spread in sub-Saharan Africa, but are viral introductions from sexual partnerships with individuals outside the community also important? This question needs answering because the effectiveness of interventions such as ART as prevention partly depends on how many new infections in an intervention area are attributable to infection from partners residing in that area and how many are attributable to infection from partners living elsewhere. Here, the researchers use three analytical methods—spatial clustering statistics, viral phylogenetics, and egocentric transmission modeling—to ask whether HIV transmission in rural Uganda is driven predominantly by intra-community sexual networks. Spatial clustering analysis uses the geographical coordinates of households to measure the tendency of HIV-infected people to cluster spatially at scales consistent with community transmission. Viral phylogenetic analysis examines the genetic relatedness of viruses; if transmission is through local networks, viruses in newly infected individuals should more closely resemble viruses in other community members than those in people outside the community. Egocentric transmission modelling uses information on the locations of recent sexual partners to estimate the proportions of new transmissions from household, intra-community, and extra-community partners.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers applied their three analytical methods to data collected from 14,594 individuals living in 46 communities (governmental administrative units) in Rakai District, Uganda. Spatial clustering analysis indicated that individuals who lived in households with individuals with incident HIV (newly diagnosed) or prevalent HIV (previously diagnosed) were 3.2 times more likely than the general population to be HIV-positive themselves. Spatial clustering outside households was relatively weak, however, and was confined to distances of less than half a kilometer. Viral phylogenetic analysis indicated that 44% of phylogenetic clusters (viruses with related genetic sequences found in more than one individual) were within households, but that 40% of clusters crossed community borders. Finally, analysis of the locations of self-reported sexual partners indicated that 39% of new viral transmissions occurred within stable household partnerships, but that among people newly infected by extra-household partners, nearly two-thirds were infected by partners from outside their community.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The results of all three analyses suggest that HIV introductions into communities are frequent and are likely to play an important role in sustaining HIV transmission in the Rakai District. Specifically, within this rural HIV-endemic region (a region where HIV infection is always present), viral introductions combined with intra-household transmission account for the majority of new infections, although community-based sexual networks also play a critical role in HIV transmission. These findings may not be generalizable to the broader Ugandan population or to other regions of Africa, and their accuracy is likely to be limited by the use of self-reported sexual partner data. Nevertheless, these findings indicate that the dynamics of HIV transmission in rural Uganda (and probably elsewhere) are complex. Consequently, to halt the spread of HIV, prevention efforts will need to be implemented at spatial scales broader than individual communities, and key populations that are likely to introduce HIV into communities will need to be targeted.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001610.
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 and AIDS in Uganda and on HIV prevention strategies (in English and Spanish)
The UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2013 provides up-to-date information about the AIDS epidemic and efforts to halt it
The Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (University of California, San Francisco) has a fact sheet about sexual networks and HIV prevention
Wikipedia provides information on spatial clustering analysis (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
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
Personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through Avert, NAM/aidsmap, and Healthtalkonline