Bias Due to Correlation Between Times-at-Risk for Infection in Epidemiologic Studies Measuring Biological Interactions Between Sexually Transmitted Infections: A Case Study Using Human Papillomavirus Type Interactions

Am J Epidemiol. 2016 Dec 15;184(12):873-883. doi: 10.1093/aje/kww152. Epub 2016 Dec 7.


The clustering of human papillomavirus (HPV) infections in some individuals is often interpreted as the result of common risk factors rather than biological interactions between different types of HPV. The intraindividual correlation between times-at-risk for all HPV infections is not generally considered in the analysis of epidemiologic studies. We used a deterministic transmission model to simulate cross-sectional and prospective epidemiologic studies measuring associations between 2 HPV types. When we assumed no interactions, the model predicted that studies would estimate odds ratios and incidence rate ratios greater than 1 between HPV types even after complete adjustment for sexual behavior. We demonstrated that this residual association is due to correlation between the times-at-risk for different HPV types, where individuals become concurrently at risk for all of their partners' HPV types when they enter a partnership and are not at risk when they are single. This correlation can be controlled in prospective studies by restricting analyses to susceptible individuals with an infected sexual partner. The bias in the measured associations was largest in low-sexual-activity populations, cross-sectional studies, and studies which evaluated infection with a first HPV type as the exposure. These results suggest that current epidemiologic evidence does not preclude the existence of competitive biological interactions between HPV types.

Keywords: bias (epidemiology); coinfection; cross-protection; microbial interactions; papillomavirus infections; sexually transmitted diseases; time factors; viral interference.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bias
  • Coinfection*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Humans
  • Microbial Interactions*
  • Models, Biological
  • Papillomaviridae / classification
  • Papillomaviridae / immunology
  • Papillomavirus Infections / epidemiology
  • Papillomavirus Infections / immunology
  • Papillomavirus Infections / transmission*
  • Papillomavirus Infections / virology
  • Risk Factors
  • Sexual Behavior / statistics & numerical data*
  • Sexual Partners
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Viral / epidemiology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Viral / immunology
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Viral / transmission*
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases, Viral / virology
  • Time Factors
  • Viral Interference*