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Epidemics. 2012 Jun;4(2):104-16. doi: 10.1016/j.epidem.2012.04.002. Epub 2012 May 2.

Agent-based and phylogenetic analyses reveal how HIV-1 moves between risk groups: injecting drug users sustain the heterosexual epidemic in Latvia.

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Theoretical Biology and Biophysics, Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM 87545, USA.


Injecting drug users (IDUs) are a driving force for the spread of HIV-1 in Latvia and other Baltic States, accounting for a majority of cases. However, in recent years, heterosexual cases have increased disproportionately. It is unclear how the changes in incidence patterns in Latvia can be explained, and how important IDUs are for the heterosexual sub-epidemic. We introduce a novel epidemic model and use phylogenetic analyses in parallel to examine the spread of HIV-1 in Latvia between 1987 and 2010. Using a hybrid framework with a mean-field description for the susceptible population and an agent-based model for the infecteds, we track infected individuals and follow transmission histories dynamically formed during the simulation. The agent-based simulations and the phylogenetic analysis show that more than half of the heterosexual transmissions in Latvia were caused by IDU, which sustain the heterosexual epidemic. Indeed, we find that heterosexual clusters are characterized by short transmission chains with up to 63% of the chains dying out after the first introduction. In the simulations, the distribution of transmission chain sizes follows a power law distribution, which is confirmed by the phylogenetic data. Our models indicate that frequent introductions reduced the extinction probability of an autonomously spreading heterosexual HIV-1 epidemic, which now has the potential to dominate the spread of the overall epidemic in the future. Furthermore, our model shows that social heterogeneity of the susceptible population can explain the shift in HIV-1 incidence in Latvia over the course of the epidemic. Thus, the decrease in IDU incidence may be due to local heterogeneities in transmission, rather than the implementation of control measures. Increases in susceptibles, through social or geographic movement of IDU, could lead to a boost in HIV-1 infections in this risk group. Targeting individuals that bridge social groups would help prevent further spread of the epidemic.

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