Do people take more risks when they know they are “protected”?

Editor’s notes: Risk compensation is a phenomenon well known to behavioural scientists.  When car-drivers wear seat belts, they may drive faster because they feel safer.  Despite some evidence to the contrary, a commonly voiced concern about PrEP is that people who take it will take more risks with their sexual health.  So it is reassuring to see two studies that examine partnership dynamics and condom use among people on antiretroviral therapy (ART) and among men who have been circumcised.

McGrath and Grapsa studied relationships and reported sexual behaviour among 632 people living with HIV and enrolled in an ongoing cohort study in KwaZulu Natal during the period, when only those with lower CD4 counts were eligible for ART.  They interviewed participants every 6 months, in person or by phone, for up to 36 months. This was in order to follow which relationships were formed and which dissolved and to determine how often participants were having sex and how often they were having condomless sex.  The authors clearly document (perhaps unsurprisingly) that many relationships dissolved (192 out of 565 partnerships at some time in the study) or formed (161 out of 132 individuals who were single at some time in the study).  Partnerships dissolved more frequently among people who had only been in a relationship for less than a year; people who drank alcohol and in partnerships where the participant described the relationship as being of “poor quality”.  New partners were more common for people who were younger; had not disclosed their HIV status; drank alcohol or reported having more than 3 lifetime sexual partners at the start of the study.  There was no suggestion that being on ART affected the likelihood of forming or leaving a partnership. This is important for mathematical models of HIV transmission in the era of universal treatment policies.

Sex was more frequently reported in people in more recent partnerships; people who knew their partners’ HIV status and among people who wanted more children.  Sex was less frequent and more often protected by a condom among people who did not trust their partner’s fidelity or where the couple did not live together.  People who were eligible for ART tended to use condoms more regularly during the follow up than people who were still “waiting for treatment”.  Other factors associated with more condom use included more equitable gender norms; HIV status disclosure and not living together.  Condoms were used less often in partnerships that included alcohol, partner violence or where the couple wanted more children.  Overall, the authors estimated that around 5.5% of sex acts were “risky” (that is unprotected with a partner who was HIV negative or where the HIV status was unknown) among those eligible for ART and around 13.2% for those not yet eligible.  Around one third of the participants reported having condomless sex at least once, but in almost half of these, they knew that their partner was also living with HIV.

Taking effective ART regularly means that people living with HIV are no longer infectious once their viral load is reliably suppressed.  However, it is clear that not everyone achieves viral load suppression.  This study provides useful prospective information about partnerships and sexual behaviour in the context of very high HIV transmission.  It is reassuring in showing that on the whole, sexual behaviour seems less risky, even before taking the huge effect of ART into account.  There was no evidence to suggest that risk compensation occurred in those offered ART.

In order to maximize the preventive benefits of ART, it is essential that people are supported to take their medicines regularly.  In crowded urban facilities in high prevalence settings, long waiting times, and challenges in stock management mean that people living with HIV have to be quite determined to negotiate the systems and minimize treatment interruptions.  Although it is national policy in Zambia and some other highly burden countries to provide three-month supplies to people whose HIV is stable and well controlled, McCarthy and colleagues found that less than half of people who should be getting three-month refills were doing so.  They instituted a cluster randomized trial of a quality improvement programme across 16 health facilities in Lusaka.  Each clinic follows around 4-5000 people on ART of whom around 1000 are stable and eligible for three-monthly refills.  The key element was for a focal point in each of the eight intervention clinics to be designated as a quality improvement officer and to be supported with materials to plan and monitor drug stocks and support local changes.  This is to ensure that stable patients did not have to spend long periods in the clinic or go away with less medicine than they needed.  The District Health Management team supported the quality improvement officers when the challenges identified were beyond their responsibilities or capabilities to change.  The programme led to a statistically significant 15% increase in the proportion of appropriate people receiving three-month refills (reaching 69%).  On average the intervention clinics became less congested (35 fewer visits per day compared to the controls) and had shorter waiting times (20 minutes shorter per visit) although these results did not reach statistical significance.

Another study exploring risk compensation was carried out by Shi and colleagues.  The authors used data from recent demographic and health surveys from countries that are part of the scale-up of voluntary medical male circumcision in East and Southern Africa.  Circumcision was most prevalent in Kenya (88% and 94% before and after 2008, when scale-up was pushed) and lowest in Zimbabwe (12% and 11% respectively). Overall condom usage increased in both circumcised and uncircumcised men.  Reports of condom use at last sex averaged around 15-16% before 2008 across the ten countries surveyed and rose to around 21% after 2008.  There was no suggestion that men who were circumcised were any less likely to use a condom than men who were not.  Similarly, there was no suggestion that circumcised men were more likely to have non-cohabiting partners.

The study also highlights big differences between countries, and between different groups.  Even among men with no regular partner, the use of a condom at last sex is often less than 50% with differences as expected also seen by age, education, religion and residence.  Promoting circumcision remains a hugely cost-effective approach to HIV prevention.  This study therefore provides important reassurance that the possibility of risk compensation is not serious for circumcision programmes.  Nonetheless we still have plenty of work to do to reach our targets and prevent HIV.

Does ART change partnership dynamics and HIV risk behaviours among PLWH? A cohort study in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

McGrath N, Grapsa E. AIDS. 2017 Apr 10. doi: 10.1097/QAD.0000000000001502. [Epub ahead of print]

Objective: We explore the impact of antiretroviral therapy (ART) on partnership acquisition and dissolution rates and changes in sexual behaviours among HIV-infected adults.

Design: Using detailed longitudinal data from a prospective cohort of HIV-infected adults with CD4<200 cell/ml (ART-eligible) or CD4>500 cell/ml (pre-ART) conducted in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, 2009-2012.

Methods: Partnership acquisition and dissolution are explored through survival analysis methods, while generalized linear models were fitted for the sexual behaviour outcomes with interaction terms to allow the association with ART to vary over time. Throughout, the primary comparison of interest for each outcome is differences between the two ART groups.

Results: ART is not associated with partner acquisition or relationship dissolution. During follow-up, the two ART groups do not differ in the odds of being sexually active nor the number of sex acts, while the odds of unprotected sex are significantly lower for partnerships of ART-eligible participants, a0R = 0.26, 95%CI(0.15,0.43). Relationship-level characteristics including cohabitation status and wanting more children with that partner are associated with higher odds and increased frequency of sexual activity, increased odds of unprotected sex; while living with partner, higher relationship quality and longer relationship duration are associated with lower risk of partnership dissolution.

Conclusion: Being on ART was not associated with increased sexual risk behaviours, a reassuring finding given the WHO recommends ART initiation upon HIV diagnosis. The importance of relationship-level characteristics provides evidence that HIV care services should offer routine support for HIV disclosure and sexual risk reduction, and promotion of couples-testing and positive couple-relationships.

Abstract access [1] 

Quality improvement intervention to increase adherence to ART prescription policy at HIV treatment clinics in Lusaka, Zambia: A cluster randomized trial.

McCarthy EA, Subramaniam HL, Prust ML, Prescott MR, Mpasela F, Mwango A, Namonje L, Moyo C, Chibuye B, van den Broek JW, Hehman L, Moberley S. PLoS One. 2017 Apr 18;12(4):e0175534. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0175534. eCollection 2017.

Introduction: In urban areas, crowded HIV treatment facilities with long patient wait times can deter patients from attending their clinical appointments and picking up their medications, ultimately disrupting patient care and compromising patient retention and adherence.

Methods: Formative research at eight facilities in Lusaka revealed that only 46% of stable HIV treatment patients were receiving a three-month refill supply of antiretroviral drugs, despite it being national policy for stable adult patients. We designed a quality improvement intervention to improve the operationalization of this policy. We conducted a cluster-randomized controlled trial in sixteen facilities in Lusaka with the primary objective of examining the intervention's impact on the proportion of stable patients receiving three-month refills. The secondary objective was examining whether the quality improvement intervention reduced facility congestion measured through two proxy indicators: daily volume of clinic visits and average clinic wait times for services.

Results: The mean change in the proportion of three-month refills among control facilities from baseline to endline was 10% (from 38% to 48%), compared to a 25% mean change (an increase from 44% to 69%) among intervention facilities. This represents a significant 15% mean difference (95% CI: 2%-29%; P = 0.03) in the change in proportion of patients receiving three-month refills. On average, control facilities had 15 more visits per day in the endline than in the baseline, while intervention facilities had 20 fewer visits per day in endline than in baseline, a mean difference of 35 fewer visits per day (P = 0.1). The change in the mean facility total wait time for intervention facilities dropped 19 minutes between baseline and endline when compared to control facilities (95% CI: -10.2-48.5; P = 0.2).

Conclusion: A more patient-centred service delivery schedule of three-month prescription refills for stable patients is viable. We encourage the expansion of this sustainable intervention in Zambia's urban clinics.

Abstract [2] Full-text [free] access [3]

Evidence that promotion of male circumcision did not lead to sexual risk compensation in prioritized sub-Saharan countries.

Shi CF, Li M, Dushoff J. PLoS One. 2017 Apr 25;12(4):e0175928. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0175928. eCollection 2017.

Background: WHO and UNAIDS prioritized 14 eastern and southern African countries with high HIV and low male circumcision prevalence for a voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) scale-up in 2007. Because circumcision provides only partial protection against HIV infection to men, the issue of possible risk compensation in response to VMMC campaigns is of particular concern. In this study, we looked at population-level survey data from the countries prioritized by WHO for a VMMC scale-up. We compared the difference in sexual risk behaviours (SRB) between circumcised and uncircumcised men before and after the WHO's official VMMC promotion.

Materials and Methods: Ten countries (Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) participating in the WHO's VMMC scale-up had available data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). We used cumulative-link mixed models to investigate interactions between survey period and circumcision status in predicting SRB, in order to evaluate whether the difference between the behavior of the two groups changed before and after the scale-up, while controlling for socio-demographic and knowledge-related covariates. The main responses were condom use at last sex and number of non-cohabiting sexual partners, both in the last 12 months.

Results: There was little change in condom use by circumcised men relative to uncircumcised men from before the VMMC scale up to after the scale up. The relative odds ratio is 1.06 (95% CI, 0.95-1.18; interaction P = 0.310). Similarly, there was little change in the number of non-cohabiting partners in circumcised men (relative to uncircumcised men): the relative odds ratio of increasing the number of partners is 0.95 (95% CI, 0.86-1.05; interaction P = 0.319). Age, religion, education, job, marital status, media use and HIV knowledge also showed statistically significant association with the studied risk behaviours. We also found significant differences among countries, while controlling for covariates.

Conclusions: Overall, we find no evidence of sexual risk compensation in response to VMMC campaigns in countries prioritized by WHO. Changes in relative partner behaviour and the relative odds of condom use were small (and of uncertain sign). In fact, our estimates, though not significant, both suggest slightly less risky behavior. We conclude that sexual risk compensation in response to VMMC campaigns has not been a serious problem to date, but urge continued attention to local context, and to promulgating accurate messages about circumcision within and beyond the VMMC context.

Abstract [4]   Full-text [free] access  [5]

Africa [13]
Kenya [14], Lesotho [15], Malawi [16], Mozambique [17], Namibia [18], Rwanda [19], South Africa [20], Uganda [21], United Republic of Tanzania [22], Zambia [23], Zimbabwe [24]
  • [25]