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Generalizability and scalability of HIV ‘treatment as prevention’

Lancaster, Kathryn E.; Nguyen, Nadia; Lesko, Catherine R.; Powers, Kimberly A.

doi: 10.1097/01.aids.0000432468.61626.d4

Department of Epidemiology, Gillings School of Global Public Health, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA.

Correspondence to Kimberly A. Powers, PhD, Department of Epidemiology, CB 7435, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599–7435, USA. E-mail:

We completely agree with the conclusion of Nosyk et al. [1] that ‘optimizing implementation of the HIV treatment as prevention strategy’ is essential. However, we believe that true optimization will require further research into the generalizability of the individual-level effectiveness of treatment as prevention (TasP) beyond HIV-infected mothers and stable, serodiscordant, heterosexual couples, as well as the scalability of individual-level effects to population-level HIV incidence. We have two main concerns about the application of ‘the Bradford-Hill criteria’ to apparently obviate the need for this further research.

First, a ‘checklist’ approach to causal inference is generally questionable, and specifically, the list that Sir Austin Bradford Hill proposed is notoriously flawed for establishing causality [2–6]. Even Hill himself cautioned that ‘none of my nine viewpoints can bring indisputable evidence for or against the cause-and-effect hypothesis.’ Only one of the items – temporality – is a necessary (though not sufficient) feature of a causal effect [2]. Each of the other ‘viewpoints’ (Hill did not call them ‘criteria’) has fundamental limitations and is neither a necessary nor sufficient causal criterion. For example, a biological gradient between a presumed cause and effect can be partially or wholly due to a confounding factor that has a dose–response relationship with the disease [2]. In the case of the population-level impact of increased antiretroviral treatment (ART) use, a concomitant behavioral intervention could be such a confounder.

Although the Bradford Hill criteria cannot prove causality, they can provide a valuable framework for evaluating the available evidence for a causal effect and identifying gaps in current knowledge. However, our second main concern about the argument put forth by Nosyk et al. [1] is that, rather than evaluating a single causal question, their approach attempts to simultaneously evaluate three: the individual-level effect of TasP within heterosexual couples and mother–child pairs, the individual-level effects in other populations, and the population-level effect of expanded ART use on HIV incidence. An approach that examines all of these related – but fundamentally different – questions with a single pass of a causal lens conflates the three distinct questions and obscures gaps in the evidence for each individual question.

There is clear evidence for a strong individual-level effect of TasP for stable, serodiscordant, heterosexual couples and for prevention of mother-to-child transmission; however, the magnitude of an individual-level effect in MSM and IDUs is much less certain. ART may be less effective at preventing transmission among MSM and IDUs, given higher transmission probabilities associated with unprotected anal sex [7] and parenteral exposure [8], a potentially greater possibility for drug resistance [9], and differences in the pharmacological performance of antiretroviral agents in the rectum [10]. Most of the existing evidence for TasP among MSM and IDUs is based on ecological studies, which are inappropriate for drawing causal conclusions about individual-level effects [11]. Additionally, as noted (but essentially dismissed) in the authors’ discussion of consistency [1], the results of these ecological studies have been inconsistent. Upcoming observational studies among serodiscordant MSM couples [12] and IDU networks [13] will provide valuable information on individual-level TasP effects in these groups.

Conclusions about the population-level impact of ART based on current evidence are also tenuous. The only empirical examinations of population-level effects are based on ecological studies with inconsistent results and critical limitations, including the potential for confounding and the use of proxy measures – such as community viral load and new HIV diagnoses – for ART exposure and HIV incidence [11,14]. Additional empirical investigations are needed to evaluate the potential effects of behavioral disinhibition [15], transmission during acute HIV infection [16], and imperfect retention throughout the HIV treatment cascade [17], all of which may undermine the population-level impact of TasP to varying degrees across settings. The results of ongoing cluster randomized trials [18] will provide important information on the population-level effects of TasP and will guide future implementation of treatment-based HIV prevention strategies.

We wholeheartedly agree that ART has great promise for both preventive and clinical benefits, and that universal ART access is absolutely imperative. However, we believe that there is still much to be learned about the individual-level effect of TasP across fundamentally different risk groups, as well as the population-level impact of expanded ART. Numerous ongoing studies will shed light on some of these critical questions, as well as some of the potential pitfalls and unintended consequences of TasP, allowing true optimization of TasP strategies.

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Conflicts of interest

There are no conflicts of interest.

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