How to keep HIV prevalence low in refugee populations

Predictors of HIV infection: a prospective HIV screening study in a Ugandan refugee settlement.

O'Laughlin KN, Rabideau DJ, Kasozi J, Parker RA, Bustamante ND, Faustin ZM, Greenwald KE, Walensky RP, Bassett IV. BMC Infect Dis. 2016 Nov 23;16(1):695.

Background: The instability faced by refugees may place them at increased risk of exposure to HIV infection. Nakivale Refugee Settlement in southwestern Uganda hosts  68 000 refugees from 11 countries, many with high HIV prevalence. We implemented an HIV screening program in Nakivale and examined factors associated with new HIV diagnosis.

Methods: From March 2013-November 2014, we offered free HIV screening to all clients in the Nakivale Health Center while they waited for their outpatient clinic visit. Clients included refugees and Ugandan nationals accessing services in the settlement. Prior to receiving the HIV test result, participants were surveyed to obtain demographic information including gender, marital status, travel time to reach clinic, refugee status, and history of prior HIV testing. We compared variables for HIV-infected and non-infected clients using Pearson's chi-square test, and used multivariable binomial regression models to identify predictors of HIV infection.

Results: During the HIV screening intervention period, 330 (4%) of 7766 individuals tested were identified as HIV-infected. Refugees were one quarter as likely as Ugandan nationals to be HIV-infected (aRR 0.27 [0.21, 0.34], p < 0.0001). Additionally, being female (aRR 1.43 [1.14, 1.80], p = 0.002) and traveling more than 1 h to the clinic (aRR 1.39 [1.11, 1.74], p = 0.003) increased the likelihood of being HIV-infected. Compared to individuals who were married or in a stable relationship, being divorced/separated/widowed increased the risk of being HIV-infected (aRR 2.41 [1.88, 3.08], p < 0.0001), while being single reduced the risk (aRR 0.60 [0.41, 0.86], p < 0.0001). Having been previously tested for HIV (aRR 0.59 [0.47, 0.74], p < 0.0001) also lowered the likelihood of being HIV-infected.

Conclusions: In an HIV screening program in a refugee settlement in Uganda, Ugandan nationals are at higher risk of having HIV than refugees. The high HIV prevalence among clients seeking outpatient care, including Ugandan nationals and refugees, warrants enhanced HIV screening services in Nakivale and in the surrounding region. Findings from this research may be relevant for other refugee settlements in sub-Saharan Africa hosting populations with similar demographics, including the 9 other refugee settlements in Uganda.

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Editor’s notes: The 4% prevalence seen among refugees in this study warrants the introduction of a routine offer of HIV testing and counselling, provider-initiated testing and counselling (PITC), in the outpatient services provided at this refugee settlement in Uganda. Although 7766 people accepted the offer of HIV testing and counselling (HTC), the real extent of the acceptability of this service is unclear because routine service delivery records document simply encounters (23 016 during the study period) rather than unique individuals. There may be challenges in defining and using unique identifiers in refugee settlement health care services but this is one example of their potential utility in helping understand the true burden of disease in these settings. HIV prevalence in refugees accepting testing was not significantly different from that in the general population in their countries of origin. For example, Rwanda 2.3% versus 2.9% and Burundi 1.4% versus 1.0%. The exception was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with 1.9% of Congolese refugees being HIV-positive compared to 0.8% in the DRC general population, warranting further study to understand this increased HIV risk.

This study reveals lower HIV prevalence among refugees (2%) than among Ugandan nationals availing themselves of the settlement health services (9%). The Ugandans included both refugees and people living in surrounding communities. Ugandans freely come and go from the settlement for job-associated or personal reasons. People testing positive for HIV were more likely to live outside the settlement. The extent of sexual mixing between local Ugandans and refugees from other countries in Nakivale is unknown but providing prevention and treatment services to both populations could help reduce the risk of HIV transmission within the settlement. This study was conducted when the 2010 WHO guidelines of 350 cells/mm3 or WHO stage III/IV for treatment initiation were in effect and antiretroviral therapy was free of charge. However, data are not presented in this paper on the important question of the extent of linkage to care and antiretroviral therapy. These data are now being used worldwide to track progress towards the UNAIDS 90-90-90 treatment target. Refugee settlements in sub-Saharan Africa provide fertile settings for a routine offer of HIV testing and immediate offer of antiretroviral therapy to people found to be HIV-positive, as per current WHO guidelines. This would benefit not only these individuals clinically but would help keep HIV transmission as low as possible in refugee settlements.

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