In sub-Saharan Africa, where ~ 25 million individuals are infected with HIV and transmission is predominantly heterosexual, there is substantial geographic variation in the severity of epidemics. This variation has yet to be explained. Here, we propose that it is due to geographic variation in the size of the high-risk group (HRG): the group with a high number of sex partners. We test our hypothesis by conducting a geospatial analysis of data from Malawi, where ~ 13% of women and ~ 8% of men are infected with HIV.
We used georeferenced HIV testing and behavioral data from ~ 14,000 participants of a nationally representative population-level survey: the 2010 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (MDHS). We constructed gender-stratified epidemic surface prevalence (ESP) maps by spatially smoothing and interpolating the HIV testing data. We used the behavioral data to construct gender-stratified risk maps that reveal geographic variation in the size of the HRG. We tested our hypothesis by fitting gender-stratified spatial error regression (SER) models to the MDHS data.
The ESP maps show considerable geographic variation in prevalence: 1-29% (women), 1-20% (men). Risk maps reveal substantial geographic variation in the size of the HRG: 0-40% (women), 16-58% (men). Prevalence and the size of the HRG are highest in urban centers. However, the majority of HIV-infected individuals (~75% of women, ~ 80% of men) live in rural areas, as does most of the HRG (~ 80% of women, ~ 85% of men). We identify a significant (P < 0.001) geospatial relationship linking the size of the HRG with prevalence: the greater the size, the higher the prevalence. SER models show HIV prevalence in women is expected to exceed the national average in districts where > 20% of women are in the HRG. Most importantly, the SER models show that geographic variation in the size of the HRG can explain a substantial proportion (73% for women, 67% for men) of the geographic variation in epidemic severity.
Taken together, our results provide substantial support for our hypothesis. They provide a potential mechanistic explanation for the geographic variation in the severity of the HIV epidemic in Malawi and, potentially, in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.