Maximizing HIV partner notification opportunities for index patients and their sexual partners in Malawi
Introduction HIV testing and counselling (HTC) is important to effect positive sexual behaviour change and is an entry point to treatment, care, and psychosocial support. One of the most practical initiatives to increase HTC is to encourage sexual partners of HIV-infected persons to test for HIV. However, partner notification strategies must be feasible in the healthcare setting and acceptable to the population.
Methods We conducted a qualitative study during the pilot phase of an HIV partner notification trial to complement its assessment of feasibility and acceptability of methods of partner notification. We performed in-depth interviews with 16 consecutive HIV-positive index participants who consented and their 12 identifiable sexual partners. We also conducted two focus group discussions with healthcare workers to supplement the patient perspectives. In the main study, newly diagnosed HIV cases (index cases) were randomized to one of three methods of partner notification: passive, contract, and provider referral. Clients in the passive referral group were responsible for notifying their sexual partners themselves. Individuals in the contract referral group were given seven days to notify their partners, after which a healthcare provider contacted partners who had not reported for counselling and testing. In the provider group, a healthcare provider notified partners directly.
Results Although most index participants and partners expressed a preference for passive notification, they also highlighted benefits for provider-assisted notification and the universal right for all HIV-exposed persons to know their HIV exposure and benefit from HIV testing and access antiretroviral treatment. Several participants mentioned couples counselling as a way to diffuse tension and get accurate information. All mentioned benefits to HIV testing, including the opportunity to change behaviour.
Conclusions Provider-assisted partner notification is not preferred, but it is acceptable
and may complement the passive method of notification. Couples counselling should also be encouraged.