The role of acute and early HIV infection in the spread of HIV and implications for transmission prevention strategies in Lilongwe, Malawi: a modelling study

Lancet. 2011 Jul 16;378(9787):256-68. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60842-8.


Background: HIV transmission risk is higher during acute and early HIV infection than it is during chronic infection, but the contribution of early infection to the spread of HIV is controversial. We estimated the contribution of early infection to HIV incidence in Lilongwe, Malawi, and predict the future effect of hypothetical prevention interventions targeted at early infection only, chronic infection only, or both stages.

Methods: We developed a deterministic mathematical model describing heterosexual HIV transmission, informed by detailed behavioural and viral-load data collected in Lilongwe. We included sexual contact within and outside of steady pairs and divided the infectious period into intervals to allow for changes in transmissibility by infection stage. We used a Bayesian melding approach to fit the model to HIV prevalence data collected between 1987 and 2005 at Lilongwe antenatal clinics. We assessed interventions that reduced the per-contact transmission probability to 0.00003 in people receiving them, and varied the proportion of individuals receiving the intervention in each stage.

Findings: We estimated that 38.4% (95% credible interval 18.6-52.3) of HIV transmissions in Lilongwe are attributable to sexual contact with individuals with early infection. Interventions targeted at only early infection substantially reduced HIV prevalence, but did not lead to elimination, even with 100% coverage. Interventions targeted at only chronic infections also reduced HIV prevalence, but coverage levels of 95-99% were needed for the elimination of HIV. In scenarios with less than 95% coverage of interventions targeted at chronic infections, additional interventions reaching 25-75% of individuals with early infection reduced HIV prevalence substantially.

Interpretation: Our results suggest that early infection plays an important part in HIV transmission in this sub-Saharan African setting. Without near-complete coverage, interventions during chronic infection will probably have incomplete effectiveness unless complemented by strategies targeting individuals with early HIV infection.

Funding: National Institutes of Health, University of North Carolina Center for AIDS Research.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acute Disease
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Chronic Disease
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / diagnosis
  • HIV Infections / transmission
  • HIV Seropositivity / diagnosis*
  • HIV Seropositivity / transmission*
  • Heterosexuality*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Malawi / epidemiology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Odds Ratio
  • Prevalence
  • Sexual Behavior*
  • Sexual Partners*
  • Time Factors
  • Viral Load*