A randomized trial of voluntary medical male circumcision (MC) of HIV—infected men reported increased HIV transmission to female partners among men who resumed sexual intercourse prior to wound healing. We conducted a prospective observational study to assess penile HIV shedding after MC.
Methods and Findings
HIV shedding was evaluated among 223 HIV—infected men (183 self—reported not receiving antiretroviral therapy [ART], 11 self—reported receiving ART and had a detectable plasma viral load [VL], and 29 self—reported receiving ART and had an undetectable plasma VL [<400 copies/ml]) in Rakai, Uganda, between June 2009 and April 2012. Preoperative and weekly penile lavages collected for 6 wk and then at 12 wk were tested for HIV shedding and VL using a real—time quantitative PCR assay. Unadjusted prevalence risk ratios (PRRs) and adjusted PRRs (adjPRRs) of HIV shedding were estimated using modified Poisson regression with robust variance. HIV shedding was detected in 9.3% (17/183) of men not on ART prior to surgery and 39.3% (72/183) of these men during the entire study. Relative to baseline, the proportion shedding was significantly increased after MC at 1 wk (PRR = 1.87, 95% CI = 1.12–3.14, p = 0.012), 2 wk (PRR = 3.16, 95% CI = 1.94–5.13, p < 0.001), and 3 wk (PRR = 1.98, 95% CI = 1.19–3.28, p = 0.008) after MC. However, compared to baseline, HIV shedding was decreased by 6 wk after MC (PRR = 0.27, 95% CI = 0.09–0.83, p = 0.023) and remained suppressed at 12 wk after MC (PRR = 0.19, 95% CI = 0.06–0.64, p = 0.008). Detectable HIV shedding from MC wounds occurred in more study visits among men with an HIV plasma VL > 50,000 copies/ml than among those with an HIV plasma VL < 400 copies/ml (adjPRR = 10.3, 95% CI = 4.25–24.90, p < 0.001). Detectable HIV shedding was less common in visits from men with healed MC wounds compared to visits from men without healed wounds (adjPRR = 0.12, 95% CI = 0.07–0.23, p < 0.001) and in visits from men on ART with undetectable plasma VL compared to men not on ART (PRR = 0.15, 95% CI = 0.05–0.43, p = 0.001). Among men with detectable penile HIV shedding, the median log10 HIV copies/milliliter of lavage fluid was significantly lower in men with ART—induced undetectable plasma VL (1.93, interquartile range [IQR] = 1.83–2.14) than in men not on ART (2.63, IQR = 2.28–3.22, p < 0.001). Limitations of this observational study include significant differences in baseline covariates, lack of confirmed receipt of ART for individuals who reported ART use, and lack of information on potential ART initiation during follow—up for those who were not on ART at enrollment.
Penile HIV shedding is significantly reduced after healing of MC wounds. Lower plasma VL is associated with decreased frequency and quantity of HIV shedding from MC wounds. Starting ART prior to MC should be considered to reduce male-to-female HIV transmission risk. Research is needed to assess the time on ART required to decrease shedding, and the acceptability and feasibility of initiating ART at the time of MC.
In this prospective cohort study, Aaron Tobian and colleagues examine the associations between male circumcision wound healing, as well as plasma viral load, and HIV shedding from male circumcision wounds.
About 35 million people are currently infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS by destroying immune system cells, and every year, 2 million more people become HIV-positive. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) can keep HIV in check, but there is no cure for AIDS. Consequently, prevention of HIV acquisition and transmission is an important component of efforts to control the AIDS epidemic. Because HIV is most often spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner, individuals can reduce their risk of becoming HIV-positive by abstaining from sex, by having only one or a few partners, and by using male or female condoms. In addition, three trials undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa a decade ago showed that male circumcision—the surgical removal of the foreskin, a loose fold of skin that covers the head of the penis—can halve the HIV acquisition rate in men. Thus, since 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended voluntary medical male circumcision for individuals living in countries with high HIV prevalence as part of its HIV prevention strategy.
Why Was This Study Done?
With the rollout of voluntary medical male circumcision programs, circumcision has become more normative (regarded as acceptable), and HIV-positive men are increasingly requesting circumcision because they want to avoid any stigma associated with being uncircumcised and because circumcision provides health benefits. WHO recommends that, although circumcision should not be promoted for HIV-positive men, voluntary circumcision programs should operate on HIV-positive men if they request circumcision. However, in a trial of circumcision of HIV-infected men, HIV transmission to their female partners increased if the couples had sexual intercourse before the circumcision wound had healed. Moreover, in studies of current male circumcision programs, two-thirds of married men and a third of all men reported that they resumed sexual intercourse before their circumcision wounds had healed. Thus, better understanding of how male circumcision increases HIV transmission to female partners is essential, and improved ways to prevent transmission in the post-surgical period are needed. Here, in a prospective observational study (an investigation that collects data over time from people undergoing a specific procedure), the researchers assess HIV shedding from the penis after circumcision.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers evaluated penile HIV shedding among 223 HIV-infected men (183 men who self-reported not being on ART and 40 men who self-reported being on ART, 29 of whom had no detectable virus in their blood) living in Rakai, Uganda, by examining preoperative and postoperative penile lavage (wash) samples. Viral shedding was detected in 9.3% of the men not on ART before surgery and in 39.3% of these men during the entire study. Relative to baseline, a greater proportion of men shed virus at one, two, and three weeks after circumcision, but a lower proportion shed virus at six and twelve weeks after circumcision. HIV shedding was more frequent among men with a high amount of virus in their blood (a high viral load) than among men with a low viral load. Moreover, the frequency of HIV shedding was lower in visits from men with healed circumcision wounds than in visits from men with unhealed wounds, and in visits from men on ART with no detectable virus in their blood than in visits from men not on ART men. Finally, among men with detectable penile HIV shedding, men on ART with no detectable virus in their blood shed fewer copies of virus than men not on ART.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The findings suggest that healed circumcision wounds are associated with reduced penile HIV shedding in HIV-positive men compared to unhealed circumcision wounds and HIV shedding prior to circumcision In addition, they suggest that a lower HIV viral load in the blood is associated with a decreased frequency and quantity of HIV shedding from circumcision wounds. Because this was an observational study, these findings cannot prove that healed wounds or reduced blood viral load actually caused reduced penile HIV shedding. Moreover, the accuracy of these findings may be affected by the lack of information on ART initiation during follow-up among men not initially on ART and by reliance on ART self-report. Nevertheless, these findings highlight the importance of counseling HIV-positive men undergoing circumcision to avoid sexual intercourse until their circumcision wound heals. In addition, these findings suggest that it might be possible to reduce HIV transmission among HIV-positive men immediately after circumcision by starting these individuals on ART before circumcision. Further research is needed to assess how long before circumcision ART should be initiated and to assess the acceptability and feasibility of initiating ART concurrent with circumcision.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001820.
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, information on male circumcision for the prevention of HIV transmission, and personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including information on HIV prevention, on voluntary medical male circumcision for HIV prevention, and on HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa; Avert also provides personal stories about living with HIV/AIDS
The World Health Organization provides information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS (in several languages), including on voluntary medical male circumcision for HIV prevention
The UNAIDS Fast-Track Strategy to End the AIDS Epidemic by 2030 provides up-to-date information about the AIDS epidemic and efforts to halt it
The Clearinghouse on Male Circumcision for HIV Prevention provides up-to-date information and resources on male circumcision for HIV prevention