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J Int AIDS Soc. 2011 Jun 20;14:33. doi: 10.1186/1758-2652-14-33.

Concurrency revisited: increasing and compelling epidemiological evidence.

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  • 1Bureau for Global Health, United States Agency for International Development, Washington, DC, USA.


Multiple sexual partnerships must necessarily lie at the root of a sexually transmitted epidemic. However, that overlapping or concurrent partnerships have played a pivotal role in the generalized epidemics of sub-Saharan Africa has been challenged. Much of the original proposition that concurrent partnerships play such a role focused on modelling, self-reported sexual behaviour data and ethnographic data. While each of these has definite merit, each also has had methodological limitations. Actually, more recent cross-national sexual behaviour data and improved modelling have strengthened these lines of evidence. However, heretofore the epidemiologic evidence has not been systematically brought to bear. Though assessing the epidemiologic evidence regarding concurrency has its challenges, a careful examination, especially of those studies that have assessed HIV incidence, clearly indicates a key role for concurrency.Such evidence includes: 1) the early and dramatic rise of HIV infection in generalized epidemics that can only arise from transmission through rapid sequential acute infections and thereby concurrency; 2) clear evidence from incidence studies that a major portion of transmission in the population occurs via concurrency both for concordant negative and discordant couples; 3) elevation in risk associated with partner's multiple partnering; 4) declines in HIV associated with declines in concurrency; 5) bursts and clustering of incident infections that indicate concurrency and acute infection play a key role in the propagation of epidemics; and 6) a lack of other plausible explanations, including serial monogamy and non-sexual transmission. While other factors, such as sexually transmitted infections, other infectious diseases, biological factors and HIV sub-type, likely play a role in enhancing transmission, it appears most plausible that these would amplify the role of concurrency rather than alter it. Additionally, critics of concurrency have not proposed plausible alternative explanations for why the explosive generalized epidemics occurred. Specific behaviour change messaging bringing the concepts of multiple partnering and concurrency together appears salient and valid in promoting safer individual behaviour and positive social norms.

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