Voluntary HIV Counseling and Testing: Experience Among the Sexually Active Population in Bangui, Central African Republic

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Objectives:In July 1997, the National Reference Center for Sexually Transmitted Diseases of Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), was expanded by the creation of an anonymous and voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) unit for HIV infection, the Anonymous Surveillance Unit (Unité de Dépistage Anonyme [UDA]). The goal of the UDA was to initiate and promote voluntary HIV testing in the general adult population of Bangui. We carried out an observational and comprehensive survey over a 4-year period to document and analyze the experience of VCT in the UDA, with special attention to risk factors associated with HIV infection.Methods:All clients for VCT were given adequate pretest counseling by trained counselors focused on knowledge about HIV infection and sexually transmitted infections, individual risks of acquiring HIV, and anticipation of the client's attitude about test results. After consent was obtained, a blood sample was drawn and tested for HIV by two ELISAs in parallel. The client paid a standard cost of $1.20 at the initial visit. After a week, test results were given to the client during the posttest visit, at which time HIV-seropositive individuals received emotional support and were referred to specific social or medical structures. Seronegative clients received reinforcement of prevention messages and were asked to come back for serologic follow-up free of charge after 3 (M3) and 12 (M12) months.Results:From July 1997 to March 2001, 5686 individuals aged 14 to 65 years (mean age, 27 years) had an initial visit for VCT (V1). Peaks of UDA visitation (250-450 clients) were observed on the annual AIDS Day in the CAR, at which time HIV serologic testing was offered free of charge. A total of 5060 (89%) clients came back for a second visit (V2) to receive test results. Among those, 18.3% were infected with HIV type 1. Multivariate analysis of risk factors demonstrated marked association of HIV seropositivity with age, female gender, widowed/divorced women, poor or low education level, occupations such as civil servants or merchants, presence of symptoms of sexually transmitted infections, and lack of systematic condom use. Single young women were at higher risk for HIV infection compared with men of the same age (OR = 7.7 for women aged 15-24 years, 95% CI: 4.0-14.0; OR = 2.8 for women aged 25-34 years, 95% CI: 1.7-4.5). Widowed women older than 44 years of age were more likely to be HIV-seropositive than men (OR = 10.0; 95% CI: 1.7-83.6). A total of 885 (21%) HIV-seronegative individuals returned for follow-up at 3 months (M3; 0.45% rate of seroconversion). Seventy-nine (9%) individuals returned at 12 months (M12), without any new cases of HIV infection. HIV-negative clients consulting at M3 and M12 showed a significant reduction in unprotected intercourse with occasional sexual partners.Conclusion:This experience demonstrates that VCT for HIV infection is feasible in Central Africa.

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