The spread of HIV is driven more by how many sexual partners a person has in their lifetime rather than having more than one lover at a time.

This is according to extensive research conducted over five years by scientists from the Africa Centre in Umkhanyakude district in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The results were published today (Friday 15 July) in the prestigious Lancet journal.

Debate has raged for years about the role that concurrent sexual partnerships (ie   sexual partnerships that overlap in time) play in HIV transmission, with a number of experts arguing that concurrent partnerships are a key driver of the epidemic in Africa.

But according to Dr Frank Tanser, the study’€™s principal investigator: ‘€œOur results clearly demonstrate the impact of multiple partnering on the transmission of HIV but we find no evidence to suggest that sexual partnerships that overlap (concurrent) are playing a disproportionately large role in driving the high rate of new infections.’€

Tanser and his team followed more than 7000 women who were all HIV negative to begin with. Almost 10 percent (693 women) became infected with HIV during the study.

The researchers used questionnaires on sexual behaviour from almost 3000 men to inform their study.

Using innovative geographical mapping, the researchers plotted communities where men reported a high level of concurrent partners as well as these where men reported higher numbers of lifetime sexual partners.

‘€œThe high rates of HIV infection were no different between communities with the highest levels of male concurrency and communities with low levels of concurrent partnerships,’€ said Tanser.

In contrast, women living in areas where local men reported an increase in the average number of reported life-time partners had a significantly higher risk of becoming infected with HIV infection.

However, the scientists noted that concurrent partners may have played an important role in the rapid spread of HIV during the early phase of the HIV epidemic.

According to the Africa Centre, which is part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the results show that HIV prevention messages need to be clear and directed at reducing the number of sexual partners ‘€œirrespective of whether these partnerships overlap’€. – Health-e News Service.