Investigating combination HIV prevention

This article discusses the need for systems thinking to support HIV prevention policy and research to be more aligned to the complexity and messiness of the real word.

Brown, G., Reeders, D. Dowsett, G.W., Ellard, J., Carman, M., Hendry, N., and Wallace, J. (2015). Investigating combination HIV prevention: isolated interventions or complex system. Journal of the International AIDS Society, 18:20499. http://dx.doi.org/10.7448/IAS.18.1.20499 (Open Access)

Introduction: Treatment as prevention has mobilized new opportunities in preventing HIV transmission and has led to bold new UNAIDS targets in testing, treatment coverage and transmission reduction. These will require not only an increase in investment but also a deeper understanding of the dynamics of combining behavioural, biomedical and structural HIV prevention interventions. High-income countries are making substantial investments in combination HIV prevention, but is this investment leading to a deeper understanding of how to combine interventions? The combining of interventions involves complexity, with many strategies interacting with non-linear and multiplying rather than additive effects.

Discussion: Drawing on a recent scoping study of the published research evidence in HIV prevention in high-income countries, this paper argues that there is a gap between the evidence currently available and the evidence needed to guide the achieving of these bold targets. The emphasis of HIV prevention intervention research continues to look at one intervention at a time in isolation from its interactions with other interventions, the community and the socio-political context of their implementation.

To understand and evaluate the role of a combination of interventions, we need to understand not only what works, but in what circumstances, what role the parts need to play in their relationship with each other, when the combination needs to adapt and identify emergent effects of any resulting synergies. There is little development of evidence-based indicators on how interventions in combination should achieve that strategic advantage and synergy. This commentary discusses the implications of this ongoing situation for future research and the required investment in partnership. We suggest that systems science approaches, which are being increasingly applied in other areas of public health, could provide an expanded vocabulary and analytic tools for understanding these complex interactions, relationships and emergent effects.

Conclusions: Relying on the current linear but disconnected approaches to intervention research and evidence we will miss the potential to achieve and understand system-level synergies. Given the challenges in sustaining public health and HIV prevention investment, meeting the bold UNAIDS targets that have been set is likely to be dependent on achieving systems level synergies.

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