Disbelief, stigma, ‘strong blood’ and inevitability affect seroconversion among HIV serodiscordant couples in Uganda

'People say that we are already dead much as we can still walk': a qualitative investigation of community and couples' understanding of HIV serodiscordance in rural Uganda.

Kim J, Nanfuka M, Moore D, Shafic M, Nyonyitono M, Birungi J, Galenda F, King R. BMC Infect Dis. 2016 Nov 10;16(1):665.

Background: Stable, co-habiting HIV serodiscordant couples are a key population in terms of heterosexual transmission in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the wide availability of antiretroviral treatment and HIV educational programs, heterosexual transmission continues to drive the HIV epidemic in Africa. To investigate some of the factors involved in transmission or maintenance of serodiscordant status, we designed a study to examine participants' understanding of HIV serodiscordance and the implications this posed for their HIV prevention practices.

Methods: In-depth interviews were conducted with 28 serodiscordant couples enrolled in a treatment-as-prevention study in Jinja, Uganda. Participants were asked questions regarding sexual behaviour, beliefs in treatment and prevention, participants' and communities' understanding and context around HIV serodiscordance. Qualitative framework analysis capturing several main themes was carried out by a team of four members, and was cross-checked for consistency.

Results: It was found that most couples had difficulty explaining the phenomenon of serodiscordance and tended to be confused regarding prevention. Many individuals still held beliefs in pseudoscientific explanations for HIV susceptibility such as blood type and blood "strength". The participants' trust of treatment and medical services were well established. However, the communities' views of both serodiscordance and treatment were more pessimistic and wrought with mistrust. Stigmatization of serodiscordance and HIV-positive status were reported frequently.

Conclusions: The results indicate that despite years of treatment and prevention methods being available, stigmatization and mistrust persist in the communities of HIV-affected individuals and may directly contribute to new cases and seroconversion. We suggest that to optimize the effects of HIV treatment and prevention, clear education and support of such methods are sorely needed in sub-Saharan African communities.

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Editor’s notes: Expanded access to antiretroviral treatment has significantly reduced HIV-associated mortality. It has also contributed to reduced HIV incidence including in the most highly affected region of sub-Saharan Africa. Most new infections in this region are due to heterosexual transmission, with transmission within HIV serodiscordant couples in marriage or cohabitation thought to account for most new infections. This qualitative study explores the perceptions of members of HIV serodiscordant couples in terms of their understanding of serodiscordance or eventual seroconversion. The authors also explore how this understanding affects their sexual behaviour and adherence to antiretroviral therapy (for people living with HIV).

This sub-study was part of the Highly Active Antiretroviral therapy as Prevention (HAARP) study of treatment as prevention (TasP) among serodiscordant couples. In-depth interviews were conducted between June 2013 and August 2014.  All couples were initially serodiscordant upon recruitment into treatment. Over the course of the study, 14 HIV seronegative participants seroconverted. These individuals and their partners were selected for the sub-study and gender-matched to control subjects who were HIV seropositive participants whose partners did not seroconvert during the study.

The results of the HPTN 052 trial demonstrated a 96% reduction in HIV transmission within serodisordant couples associated with early use of antiretroviral therapy.  In this rural Ugandan setting, the phenomenon of serodiscordance remains poorly understood by people affected by it and the communities surrounding them. Despite extensive education campaigns and communication about HIV prevention various factors affect understanding of serodiscordance. Medication, confusion, mistrust, stigma, and a resulting sense of inevitability may negatively affect couples’ understanding and belief in the phenomenon of serodiscordance. For a variety of reasons, some serodisordant couples also report lack of consistent condom use. This is of particular concern where abstinence has proved to be an unachievable option for many couples. Improved education regarding serodiscordance and ART treatment will be required to address heterosexual transmission and ensure the maintenance of serodiscordance in affected couples.

Africa
Uganda
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