Assisted partner services a safe, effective strategy to identify undiagnosed HIV cases in sub-Saharan Africa

Assisted partner services for HIV in Kenya: a cluster randomised controlled trial.

Cherutich P, Golden MR, Wamuti B, Richardson BA, Asbjornsdottir KH, Otieno FA, Ng'ang'a A, Mutiti PM, Macharia P, Sambai B, Dunbar M, Bukusi D, Farquhar C. Lancet HIV. 2016 Nov 29. pii: S2352-3018(16)30214-4. doi: 10.1016/S2352-3018(16)30214-4. [Epub ahead of print]

Background: Assisted partner services for index patients with HIV infections involves elicitation of information about sex partners and contacting them to ensure that they test for HIV and link to care. Assisted partner services are not widely available in Africa. We aimed to establish whether or not assisted partner services increase HIV testing, diagnoses, and linkage to care among sex partners of people with HIV infections in Kenya.

Methods: In this cluster randomised controlled trial, we recruited non-pregnant adults aged at least 18 years with newly or recently diagnosed HIV without a recent history of intimate partner violence who had not yet or had only recently linked to HIV care from 18 HIV testing services clinics in Kenya. Consenting sites in Kenya were randomly assigned (1:1) by the study statistician (restricted randomisation; balanced distribution in terms of county and proximity to a city) to immediate versus delayed assisted partner services. Primary outcomes were the number of partners tested for HIV, the number who tested HIV positive, and the number enrolled in HIV care, in those who were interviewed at 6 week follow-up. Participants within each cluster were masked to treatment allocation because participants within each cluster received the same intervention. This trial is registered with, number NCT01616420.

Findings: Between Aug 12, 2013, and Aug 31, 2015, we randomly allocated 18 clusters to immediate and delayed HIV assisted partner services (nine in each group), enrolling 1305 participants: 625 (48%) in the immediate group and 680 (52%) in the delayed group. 6 weeks after enrolment of index patients, 392 (67%) of 586 partners had tested for HIV in the immediate group and 85 (13%) of 680 had tested in the delayed group (incidence rate ratio 4.8, 95% CI 3.7-6.4). 136 (23%) partners had new HIV diagnoses in the immediate group compared with 28 (4%) in the delayed group (5.0, 3.2-7.9) and 88 (15%) versus 19 (3%) were newly enrolled in care (4.4, 2.6-7.4). Assisted partner services did not increase intimate partner violence (one intimate partner violence event related to partner notification or study procedures occurred in each group).

Interpretation: Assisted partner services are safe and increase HIV testing and case-finding; implementation at the population level could enhance linkage to care and antiretroviral therapy initiation and substantially decrease HIV transmission.

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Editor’s notes: One of the greatest challenges to achieving goals such as the UNAIDS 90:90:90 treatment target is the development of more effective strategies to enable people undiagnosed living with HIV to be tested and engaged with care. One strategy for achieving this in high-income settings, albeit with a very limited evidence base, is assisted partner services. In this approach, health-care workers identify and attempt to contact the sexual partners of people recently diagnosed with HIV. These partners are then encouraged to be tested and engaged with care. This pragmatic cluster randomised study, conducted in Kenya, aimed to assess whether assisted partner services were feasible in a sub-Saharan African setting and if so, to measure the effectiveness in terms of additional individuals testing for HIV, receiving new HIV diagnoses and engaging with care as a result of the programme.

The results were striking, in that six weeks after enrolment almost five times as many partners of index cases in the immediate group (partners contacted  at enrolment) had been tested for HIV compared to the delayed group (partners contacted  six weeks after enrolment). There were five times as many new HIV diagnoses in the immediate group compared to the delayed group. There were also four times as many partners newly engaged with care in the immediate arm compared to the delayed arm. There was also no evidence that the tracing of sexual partners led to an increase in intimate partner violence.

These results illustrate that assisted partner services can make an important contribution to identifying people living with HIV who are undiagnosed, enabling people to get tested and engaged with care in a low-income setting. A major challenge, identified by the study authors, is whether the human resources would be available in already highly stretched settings to implement this strategy. They suggest that task shifting from professional healthcare providers to a less highly educated cadre of workers would be feasible and point to other areas of care such as safe male circumcision and ART delivery, where this has been successfully achieved. 

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