A meta-analysis involving 44,993 men who have sex with men finds that anti-LGBT legislation is associated with lower HIV testing and awareness.
This first systematic review to investigate HIV testing, treatment and viral suppression in men who have sex with men in Africa finds that among the most recent studies (conducted after 2011) only half of men have been tested for HIV in the past 12 months. In addition, only a quarter of men living with HIV were on antiretroviral therapy or virally suppressed.
The analysis, published in The Lancet HIV journal, found that testing for HIV was higher where there was more protective and progressive legislation and fewer or no LGBT-related arrests.
Although rates of testing are substantially higher than before 2011, they are not sufficient to achieve the targets set by the UN (to have 90% of people living with HIV aware of their status, 90% of those aware also on antiretroviral therapy, and 90% of these achieving viral suppression by 2020). The findings support previous country-level studies suggesting an association between anti-LGBT legislation and access to testing and treatment.
Globally, men who have sex with men are about 28 times more likely to be living with HIV than are men in the general population, and this is particularly apparent in sub-Saharan Africa where human rights of these men are often violated. Anti-LGBT discrimination creates barriers to implementing effective HIV research, policy and health programs along with disruption of services provided by community and non-governmental organizations.
Professor Marie-Claude Boily of Imperial College London, UK says: “Nearly one million people living with HIV still die annually because they cannot or do not get tested and engage in treatment. Our results suggest that despite improvements in recent years in Africa, engagement in HIV testing and treatment among men who have sex with men is still low, and additional efforts are urgently needed. With an estimated 67% of men who have sex with men in Africa surveyed after 2011 having ever tested for HIV, we are still a long way off achieving the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets.”
The review used 75 independent studies conducted between 2004 and 2017 from 28 African countries to estimate HIV testing, status awareness, engagement in care, antiretroviral therapy use, and viral suppression in the men.
Over all studies conducted after 2011, the estimated proportion of participants ever tested for HIV was 67%, which was 1.3 times higher than before 2011, and was highest in southern Africa (80%) and lowest in northern Africa (34 %). In comparison, the proportion of men tested in the last 12 months was 50% in studies after 2011, which was 1.6 times higher than before 2011, and again was highest in southern but lowest in eastern Africa (67% vs 40%).
The proportion of men who have sex with men who are HIV positive and aware of their status was much lower at just 19%, and was particularly low in eastern Africa even after 2011 (9%). Overall, less than 24% of men living with HIV were currently on antiretroviral therapy, and an estimated 25% of men living with HIV were currently virally suppressed. It was not possible to look at changes over time as there was not enough data in the studies on these outcomes.
Levels of HIV testing ever, in the past 12 months, and HIV status awareness were lower in countries with the most severe anti-LGBT legislation, compared with countries with the least severe legislation. Men were more likely to have ever been tested for HIV in countries with more protective and progressive legislation and no LGBT-related arrests from 2014-17.
The authors note some limitations, including that there were no studies in 26 African countries, including 13 countries where same-sex relations are illegal, so the new findings may not apply to the entire African continent and results may be worse in countries with more severe anti-LGBT legislation. Despite a substantial increase in the number of studies on testing for HIV, treatment and viral suppression, data remains scarce for all outcomes except HIV testing, especially from central and northern Africa. This means the study may underestimate or overestimate engagement, especially for antiretroviral therapy use and viral suppression. The authors note that this reflects the challenges of doing research among key populations that face substantial stigma.
The anti-LGBT legislation index used in the study only includes information about legislation, not how it is implemented so may not have captured the full picture. Because most of the studies included were self-reported and used non-confidential interview methods, underreporting and reporting biases are possible.
In a linked Comment article, Dr Jean Joel Bigna of the Centre Pasteur of Cameroon, Yaoundé, Cameroon, says: “Stannah and colleagues have provided important updates on the current situation regarding the HIV care cascade among men who have sex with men in Africa, and highlight areas where urgent action is needed. Governments in Africa should develop comprehensive programs and holistic interventions to provide care, support, and preventive services for this hard-to-reach stigmatized and discriminated vulnerable population. Community mobilization, health-care worker education to decrease stigma and discrimination and engagement remain crucial to end the HIV/AIDS pandemic both globally and at its epicenter in Africa. Human rights are universal and sexual orientation is no grounds for exclusion.”