Clinical Guide > Maintenance and Prevention > Preventing HIV

Preventing HIV Transmission / Prevention with Positives

January 2011

Chapter Contents


Helping patients to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV to others is an important aspect of medical care for HIV-infected individuals. Most people with HIV infection want to prevent others from being infected with HIV, but they may practice sexual or injection drug behaviors that put others at risk of infection. Most HIV-infected patients also want to protect themselves from acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or bloodborne infections. This chapter offers recommendations for discussing HIV transmission and prevention with HIV-infected patients, with the goal of reducing HIV transmission. This aspect of care is often referred to as "prevention with positives" (PWP).

Taking responsibility for preventing HIV transmission is an important concern for most people with HIV, as well as for their health care providers. Multiple studies have shown that one third to three fourths of HIV medical providers do not ask their patients about sexual behavior or drug use. However, many HIV-infected individuals report that they want to discuss prevention with their health care providers. Each patient visit presents an opportunity to provide effective prevention interventions, even in busy clinical settings.

It is clear that information alone, especially on subjects such as sexual activity and drug use, cannot be expected to change patients' behavior. However, health care providers can help patients understand the transmission risk of certain types of behavior and help patients establish personal prevention strategies (sometimes based on a harm-reduction approach) for themselves and their partners. Some patients may have difficulty adhering to their safer sex goals. In these cases, referrals to mental health clinicians or other professional resources such as prevention case management may be helpful.

Patient-education needs are variable and must be customized. Providers must assess the individual patient's current level of knowledge as part of developing a prevention plan. All the information that a patient needs cannot be covered during a single visit. A patient's prevention strategy should be reinforced and refined at each visit with the clinician. Clinicians also should ask patients questions to determine life changes (e.g., a new relationship, a breakup, or loss of a job) that may affect the patient's sexual or substance use practices. If the patient can read well, printed material can be given to reinforce education in key areas, but it cannot replace a direct conversation with the clinician.

Techniques for Brief, Effective Interventions by Providers

A number of strategies have been shown to be more effective than providing information alone. Effective and brief provider-initiated interventions include the following elements:

Examples of Prevention Intervention Programs with Demonstrated Efficacy in Treatment Settings

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a number of prevention interventions on individual, group, and community levels that meet criteria for efficacy and scientific rigor. A summary of these interventions can be accessed online at the CDC website. Training and educational materials for effective intervention models can be found on the CDC-supported Diffusion of Effective Behavioral Interventions (DEBI) website. The following three approaches have demonstrated efficacy in treatment settings:

Summary of Prevention with Positives: Key Areas of Intervention

More detailed discussions of topics follow this table.

Table 1. Key Areas of Risk Assessment and Intervention

TopicQuestions, Assessment, and Plan
General Risk AssessmentSubjective/objective questions to ask:
  1. What do you know about HIV transmission?
  2. What, if anything, are you doing that could result in transmitting HIV to another person?
Assessment and plan:
  • Use this as an opportunity to help educate the patient on HIV transmission and to correct misinformation.
  • Place the patient's behaviors on a risk spectrum and try to prioritize the behaviors that are riskiest or the behaviors that the patient is most willing to address.
Sexual PracticesSubjective/objective questions to ask:
  1. Tell me about any sexual activity since your last clinic visit.
  2. What do you know about the HIV status of each sex partner?
  3. Tell me about condom use during any sexual activity.
  4. What has made it more difficult for you to use condoms during this sexual encounter or with this partner?
  5. Do your sex practices differ with HIV-infected versus HIV-uninfected partners ("sexual positioning")?

See below for more on partner notification.

Other information to collect:

  • Number of sex partners in the past 6 months
  • Gender of each partner
  • Type of relationship with each partner (main, casual, anonymous)
  • Type of sexual activity engaged with each partner
  • Safer and less-safe sexual practices with each partner
  • Substance use, including alcohol, associated with sex
  • Circumstances of risky sex behaviors (e.g., bars/clubs, anonymous partners, intoxication)

Assessment and plan:

  • Assess the patient's level of risk for sexual transmission.
  • Assess the patient's willingness and ability to use condoms during each sexual encounter, particularly with partners who are HIV uninfected or of unknown HIV serostatus.
  • Assess the patient's ability to use condoms (male and/or female) and correct any misinformation. See information on how to use condoms below.
  • Supply the patient with condoms and lubricant.
  • If the patient is unwilling to use condoms, counsel that risk of transmission can be reduced by screening for and treating STIs, using abundant amounts of lubrication, avoiding concurrent drug use, avoiding the use of spermicides and douching, and by choosing less risky sexual activities. Additionally, advise that serosorting, in which HIV-infected persons have sex only with other HIV-infected individuals, is effective in preventing transmission to uninfected persons.
Partner NotificationSubjective/objective questions to ask:
  1. What are your thoughts and experiences talking with your partner(s) about your HIV infection? This may be one of the hardest things you have to do.
  2. (If the patient has not disclosed to main partner[s]): How might you approach this?
  3. Are you afraid for your safety if you tell your partner(s)?

Assessment and plan: ways to offer help for disclosure

  • Local health departments may have programs that help conduct partner tracing and contact in a confidential manner.
  • Providers and support staff can help disclose to partners with the patient present.
  • Providers and support staff can help disclose to partners without the patient present.
STI Screening
  • The presence of an STI suggests behaviors that can increase HIV transmission, and it is detrimental to the patient's health.
  • Screen all patients at baseline and regularly afterward, depending on their risk factors. For example, screen every 3-6 months for a patient with new sex partners or new drug-injecting partners.
  • Routinely ask patients if they have symptoms of an STI.
  • Depending on risk, it is recommended to screen for the following STIs:
    • Syphilis: Serologic test (e.g., RPR, VDRL)
    • Gonorrhea: For pharyngeal infections, use nucleic acid amplification test (NAAT) or culture of oral swab*; for rectal infections, use NAAT or culture of rectal swab*; for urethral or cervical infections, use first-catch urine or urethral (male) or cervical (female) specimen for NAAT, or culture of urethra/cervical specimen
    • Chlamydia: For pharyngeal infections, use NAAT or culture of oral swab*; for rectal infections, use NAAT or culture of rectal swab*; for urethral or cervical infections use first-catch urine or urethral (men) or cervical (women) specimen for NAAT
    • Trichomonas: Wet mount or culture on vaginal secretion
    • Herpes simplex virus (HSV): Type-specific HSV-2 antibody testing

Additionally, hepatitis B and hepatitis C are not known to increase the risk of HIV infection, they may be transmitted sexually, and persons with risk factors (particularly men who have sex with men [MSM] with risky sexual practices) should be screened regularly (see chapter Initial and Interim Laboratory and Other Tests).

* NAAT is not yet approved for this indication by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), though there is evidence that NAAT can accurately diagnose pharyngeal and rectal gonorrhea and chlamydia infections. Many local public health departments and other laboratories have received Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) waivers to perform these tests.
Drug and Alcohol Risk AssessmentSubjective/objective questions to ask:
  1. Tell me about any drug or alcohol use since your last clinic visit.
  2. How do you think your drug or alcohol use affects your sexual behaviors?
  3. What are your thoughts about quitting or cutting down on drug and alcohol use, and about separating it from sex?

See below for follow-up on needle-sharing practices.

Assessment and plan:

  • Assess the patient's level and circumstances of risk to target your intervention.
  • Emphasize that nasal straws or sniffers (e.g., for cocaine) should not be shared.
  • Assess the patient's readiness to quit or cut down on drug and alcohol use, and to separate it from sex.
  • Deliver messages tailored to the patient's readiness; for example, educate on the risks of harming oneself or other, facilitate a plan for harm reduction, or refer to rehabilitation/detoxification programs and centers.
Needle-Use PracticesSubjective/objective question to ask:
  • Tell me about any needle sharing since your last clinic visit.

Assessment and plan:

  • After assessing the patient's risks and readiness, and if the patient is not ready for treatment (e.g., referral to detoxification programs or to buprenorphine and methadone programs for heroin users), the following messages for harm reduction can be offered:
    • Use only sterile needles from pharmacies or needle exchange programs. (Provide informations about local needle exchange programs. Some are listed on the North American Syringe Exchange Network website.
    • Never reuse or share needles, syringes, or drug preparation equipment because it leads not only to transmission of HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C, but also to bacterial infections and abscesses.
    • Use new or disinfected cookers and new cotton filters to prepare drugs.
    • Clean the skin with a new alcohol swab before injecting.
    • If equipment must be reused, it should be cleaned properly with bleach or water.
    • Safely dispose of syringes in a sharps container (which can be a clean detergent or other container), then take them to a needle exchange program or pharmacy for disposal.
Mental Health Assessment

Mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder can increase the chances of risky sexual and drug-use behaviors. Ask about mental health illnesses directly and pay attention to any symptoms that may indicate a psychiatric illness (e.g., manic episodes, depressive episodes, hallucinations).

Subjective/objective questions to ask:

  1. Tell me about any previous diagnoses or hospitalizations for mental health illnesses.
  2. Have you taken any medications for mental health illnesses?
  3. Perform a depression screen: see chapter Major Depression and Other Depressive Disorders.

Assessment and plan:

See section Neuropsychiatric Disorders for more information.

Pregnancy ScreeningSubjective/objective questions to ask:

For women of childbearing potential:

  1. Are you currently pregnant or wanting to become pregnant at some point in the future?
  2. Have you missed any periods recently? Are you having any symptoms of pregnancy?
  3. What are your thoughts and plans about birth control?

For men with female sex partners:

  1. What are your thoughts on having a baby with your partner? What are your thoughts about fathering?
  2. What are your thoughts on using birth control with your partner?

Assessment and plan:

See chapter Health Care of HIV-Infected Women Through the Life Cycle.

Antiretroviral Therapy (ART)

Lower levels of HIV in the blood (in particular, complete suppression of the HIV RNA through effective ART) have been associated with lower levels of HIV virus in genital secretions and with reductions in the rate of HIV transmission among serodiscordant couples.

Effective ART with virologic suppression appears to sharply reduce the risk of HIV transmission and is one important means of HIV prevention. However, it does not eliminate transmission risk. In some individuals, there can be substantial discrepancies between HIV RNA levels in the serum and the sexual fluids.

Be watchful for attitude shifts away from safer sexual and needle-sharing behaviors among patients who believe that ART protects them from transmitting HIV.

Sexual Transmission and Prevention of HIV

Begin the education process by learning what the patient and his or her immediate family members (if the family is aware of the patient's HIV status) believe about HIV transmission. Also be sure the patient understands how the virus is not transmitted (e.g., via sharing plates and eating utensils or using the same bathrooms) to allay any unnecessary fear.

Advise the patient not to share toothbrushes, razors, douche equipment, or sex toys to avoid transmitting HIV via blood or sexual secretions. This also will help prevent the transmission of other bloodborne or sexually transmitted infections, including hepatitis C, from coinfected patients. The patient should not donate blood, plasma, tissue, organs, or semen because these can transmit HIV to the recipient.

There is no reason why a person with HIV cannot have an active, fulfilling, and intimate sex life. However, the patient must be counseled properly about the risk of transmission. This discussion between the provider and patient should be client centered. This means that the provider should let the patient guide the discussion, starting from the patient's current point of knowledge and practice, always addressing any presenting concerns the patient may have prior to proceeding with a discussion about sexual transmission and risk. The provider should ask open-end questions, in a nonjudgmental manner, to elicit information about the patient's relationships, sexual behaviors, and current means of reducing transmission risk.

It is important to recognize that not every patient seeks the complete elimination of risk (e.g., via abstinence) but rather a reduction in risk, chosen after the options are discussed with the provider. The clinician may help the patient select and practice behaviors that are likely to be less risky. There are many methods for reducing risk, including the following:

If the patient requires more extensive counseling to support behavioral changes, the provider should refer the patient to support groups or prevention case management to meet those needs. Certainly, if the patient is dealing with a dual or triple diagnosis (including substance abuse or mental illness), a referral to address those needs is indicated.

Partner Notification

A good way to begin a discussion about HIV prevention and transmission is with an inquiry about any previous experiences disclosing to partners. The provider then can ask whether the patient currently has a need to disclose to one or more partners and whether he or she is ready and motivated to share information about HIV status. The provider should prompt patients to consider several questions about disclosure, including how they might approach the discussion, how their partners might react, what information they might offer their partners, whether partners are likely to keep their status confidential, and whether they have any concerns about personal safety (e.g., owing to fear of a violent reaction). If patients fear violence or retaliation or are not ready to share their status but want their partners to know, the provider may offer assistance with partner notification, for example through the local health department, in a confidential manner. As an alternative, patients may want the provider to talk with their partners, and that option can be offered as well. See the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs HIV website for a patient-oriented discussion of partner notification.

Helping Patients Reduce the Risk of Sexual Transmission

Standard Condom Use

Make sure that the patient understands how HIV is transmitted and which types of sexual acts are more and less risky than others. For vaginal or anal sex, correct use of latex or polyurethane condoms reduces the risk of HIV transmission considerably. Patients should be encouraged to use condoms as much as possible. For HIV-infected individuals, condom use is effective in reducing the risk of contracting another illness (such as hepatitis C or another STI) and the (apparently low) risk of becoming reinfected with another strain of HIV. It should be noted that condoms are less effective in reducing the transmission of organisms such as human papillomavirus (HPV) and HSV, which may result from viral shedding from skin. In the event of allergy to latex or other difficulty with latex condoms, polyurethane male or female condoms may be substituted. "Natural skin or "lambskin" condoms are not recommended for HIV prevention.

Of course, condoms must be used correctly to be highly effective in preventing HIV transmission. Be sure that the patient knows exactly how to use a condom. Table 2 provides instructions for condom use.

Table 2. Instructions for Use of Standard Condoms

  • Use a new latex or polyurethane condom with each act of sex (oral, anal, or vaginal). Make sure that the condom is undamaged, and that its expiration date has not passed.
  • Carefully handle the condom to avoid damage (e.g., from fingernails, teeth).
  • Being sure that the condom roll faces out, unroll the condom onto the erect penis before any genital contact with partner.
  • Ensure that the tip of the condom is pinched when applying it to the top of the penis, to eliminate air in the tip that could cause breakage during ejaculation.
  • Use only water-based lubricants with latex condoms. Oil-based lubricants (such as mineral oil, cooking oil, massage oil, body lotion, and petroleum jelly) can weaken latex or cause it to break, although they are fine with the use of polyurethane condoms. Adequate lubrication during intercourse helps reduce the risk of condom breakage.

Advise patients to avoid using nonoxynol-9 (N-9) spermicides. Data suggest that N-9 may increase risk of HIV transmission during vaginal intercourse and can damage the rectal lining. N-9 never should be used for anal intercourse.

For patients who complain about lack of sensitivity with condom use, the following techniques may help:

For patients who are unable or unwilling to use condoms, the following suggestions may help reduce HIV transmission risk:

Insertive (Female) Condom Use

The insertive "female" condom may be used for vaginal or anal intercourse. It is a thin polyurethane pouch with a flexible ring at the opening, and another unattached flexible ring that sits inside the pouch to keep it in position in the vagina (for use in the anus, the inner ring must be removed and discarded). The female condom may be an option for women whose male partners will not use male condoms or for couples who do not like standard condoms. Female condoms are more expensive than male condoms, but may be procured at a lower cost at some health departments or Planned Parenthood clinics. They generally are less well known to patients and may be unacceptable to some women whose culture or religion prohibits or discourages touching one's own genitals. Note that the female condom cannot be used at the same time as a male condom.

Be sure the patient knows how to use the insertive condom before she or he needs it; after teaching, encourage practice when alone at home and unhurried. Women who have used the diaphragm, cervical cap, or contraceptive sponge may find it easy to use the female condom. Illustrated directions are included in each box of insertive condoms. Instructions on the use of insertive condoms are provided in Table 3.

Table 3. Instructions for Use of Insertive (Female) Condoms

Vaginal Intercourse
  • Open the pouch by tearing at notched edge of packet, and take out the female condom. Be sure that the lubricant is evenly distributed on the inside by rubbing the outsides together.
  • Find a comfortable position, such as standing with one foot on a chair, sitting with knees apart, or squatting. Be sure the inner ring is inside, at the closed end of the pouch.
  • Hold the pouch with the open end hanging down. While holding the outside of the pouch, squeeze the inner ring with your thumb and middle finger. Still squeezing, spread the labia with your other hand and insert the closed end of the pouch into the vagina.
  • Now, put your fingers into the pouch itself, which should be inside the vagina, and push the inner ring and the pouch the rest of the way up into the vagina with your index finger. Check to see that the front side of the inner ring is just past the pubic bone. The back part of the inner ring should be up behind the cervix. The outer ring and about an inch of the pouch will be hanging outside the vagina.
  • Until you and your partner become comfortable using the female condom, use your hand to guide the penis into the vagina, keeping it inside the pouch. If, during intercourse, the outer ring is pushed inside the vagina, stop, remove the female condom, and start over with a new one. Extra lubricant on the penis or the inside of the female condom may help keep this from happening.
  • After intercourse, take out the condom by squeezing and twisting the outer ring to keep the semen inside the pouch. Throw away in a trash can; do not flush. Do not reuse.
  • More information is available on the Planned Parenthood website.
Anal Intercourse
  • Remove the inner ring and discard it. Put the female condom on the penis of the insertive partner and insert the condom with the penis, being careful not to push the outer ring into the rectum. The outer ring remains outside the anus, for ease of removal after ejaculation.

Prevention with Positives and Oral Sex

Although there is evidence that some people have become infected through receptive oral sex, the risk of HIV transmission via oral sex, in general, is much lower than the risk of transmission by vaginal or anal sex. Thus, most public health and prevention specialists focus their attention on riskier sexual and drug-use behaviors. However, because HIV transmission can occur with oral sex, clinicians should address this issue with patients and help them make informed decisions about risk reduction. Sores or lesions in or around the mouth or on the genitals may increase the risk of HIV transmission, as may a concurrent STI. Patients (and their partners) should avoid oral-genital contact if they have these conditions. Similarly, patients and partners can further reduce risk by not brushing or flossing teeth before oral sex. Individuals who wish to further reduce the risk of HIV transmission during oral sex may use barriers such as condoms, dental dams, and flexible plastic kitchen wrap.

Individuals who smoke crack cocaine often develop open burns, cracked lips, or damaged mucous membranes inside the mouth and thus may be at elevated risk of HIV transmission via oral sex. HIV-infected crack users should be counseled about the risk of transmitting HIV to uninfected partners through those portals of entry during oral sex and should receive risk-reduction counseling. In addition, they (or their partners) may benefit from techniques such as insulating the end of the crack pipe to reduce burns while smoking (e.g., with a rubber band or spark plug cap) and avoiding the brittle or sharp-edged copper scrubbing pads used as screens in the crack pipe.

Influence of Substance Use on Sexual Behavior

Alcohol and drug use can contribute significantly to the risk of sexual transmission of HIV, because of behavioral disinhibition. While intoxicated, substance users may, for example, forgo condom use, practice riskier sexual behaviors, have multiple partners, or use erectile dysfunction agents to sustain sexual activity. Addressing substance use issues is an important aspect of PWP. Patients should be assessed for HIV transmission risks associated with alcohol and injection or noninjection drug use, including crystal methamphetamine, in the context of their sexual behaviors (for injection drug use, see below). As always, it is important to approach the patient in a nonjudgmental manner. If alcohol or other drugs are posing barriers to practicing safer behaviors, the provider should counsel the patient to reduce or avoid substance use before engaging in sex, or refer the patient to prevention case management for more specialized risk reduction. Often, the provider can help the patient identify methods for reducing HIV transmission risk, including means that do not require abstaining from alcohol and drug use.

Injection Drug Use and Prevention of HIV

Clinicians should discuss substance use, including steroid use, and reinforce the patient's understanding of the adverse effects that these drugs can have on the body and the immune system. Assess whether referral for treatment is appropriate, and be knowledgeable about referral resources and mechanisms. If the patient is using injection drugs, emphasize the fact that HIV is readily transmitted by sharing needles and other injection equipment and that reusing or sharing needles and syringes can cause additional infections (e.g., endocarditis, hepatitis C). Assess the patient's readiness to change his or her drug injection practices, and refer to drug treatment programs as appropriate. Refer to an addiction counselor for motivational interviewing or other interventions, if available. After completion of substance abuse treatment, relapse prevention programs and ongoing support will be needed. If the patient continues to use needles, discuss safer needle-use practices (Table 1) and refer to a needle-exchange program, if one is available, so that syringes and needles are not reused. A partial listing of needle exchange sites may be found on the North American Syringe Exchange Network website, although many states either do not have facilities or are prohibited from listing them. Local harm-reduction activists may be aware of specific programs for obtaining clean needles and syringes. Patient-education flyers on safer injection practices, safer stimulant use, overdose prevention, and other topics are available on the Midwest AIDS Education and Training Center website.

Noninjection Drug Use and Prevention of HIV Transmission

Exposure to HIV through contaminated blood may occur with the use of noninjection drugs; for example, by sharing cocaine straws or sniffers through which cocaine is inhaled. These straws easily can penetrate fragile nasal mucosa and become contaminated with blood from one user before being used by another individual, who may then experience mucous membrane exposure or even a cut or break in the mucous membrane from the bloody object. Straws or sniffers should not be shared.

Tattoo, Piercing, and Acupuncture Equipment

Patients should be aware of the risk of contamination of tattoo equipment, inks, and piercing equipment, and they should avoid situations wherein they might either transmit HIV or pick up other bloodborne pathogens. Acupuncturists generally use sterile needles, but clients should verify that before using their services.

Maternal-Infant HIV Transmission

HIV-infected women can have healthy pregnancies, with good health outcomes for both mother and baby. For this to occur, women must know their HIV status as early as possible, preferably before becoming pregnant, and must receive effective ART. Although intervention to reduce the risk of perinatal infection is most effective if begun early in pregnancy, or preferably before pregnancy, it may be beneficial at any point in the pregnancy, even as late as during labor. For further information, see chapter Reducing Maternal-Infant HIV Transmission.

Preexposure Prophylaxis (PrEP)

A number of investigations have been undertaken to evaluate the efficacy of ARV medications as preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) -- that is, oral ARVs taken by at-risk HIV-uninfected individuals with the goal of preventing HIV infection. Other studies are examining ARV-based microbicides, topical preparations applied before HIV exposure, with the same goal. Two recent randomized trials have shown that ARV chemoprophylaxis can reduce the risk of sexual acquisition of HIV. In one, oral tenofovir + emtricitabine (Truvada), taken daily, reduced the risk of HIV acquisition in high-risk MSM and transgender women who have sex with men. In another, tenofovir vaginal gel (available only through research studies), used before and after vaginal intercourse, reduced the risk of HIV infection in high-risk heterosexual women in South Africa. In both studies, the ARV prophylaxis was given in conjunction with other risk-reduction interventions, including counseling, condom provision, and STI testing and treatment, and in both, effectiveness appeared to correlate with adherence to the prophylactic medication. Studies of various types of biomedical prevention in various populations are ongoing. The efficacy and safety of preexposure prophylaxis in "real world" settings need to be explored, and will help determine the role of PrEP in HIV prevention in the United States and elsewhere. It appears that PrEP may be particularly useful in populations and countries in which the risk of HIV infection is high and the availability or uptake of other prevention methods (e.g., condoms) is low. The CDC has issued interim guidelines on the use of oral tenofovir-emtricitabine as PrEP in MSM (see "References," below); until more data are available, alternative approaches to PrEP should not be undertaken.

Postexposure Prophylaxis for Nonoccupational HIV Exposure

Postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) may be considered for certain sexual exposures, sexual assaults, and other nonoccupational exposures to HIV. As with occupational PEP, a risk assessment must be completed and ART, if indicated, must be started as soon after exposure as possible. The risks and toxicities of antiretroviral drugs must be weighed against potential benefits, and the client's informed consent must be obtained. For further information, see chapter Nonoccupational Postexposure Prophylaxis.


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