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J Int AIDS Soc. 2017 Nov;20 Suppl 7. doi: 10.1002/jia2.25003.

HIV viral load monitoring among key populations in low- and middle-income countries: challenges and opportunities.

Author information

Department of Epidemiology, Center for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA.
Center for Public Health Initiatives, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA.
O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, Georgetown University, Washington, DC, USA.
Berman Institute of Bioethics, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, USA.
Department of Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD, USA.
Anova Health Institute, Cape Town, South Africa.
Division of Intramural Research, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Bethesda, MD, USA.
Department of Bacteriology and Virology, CHU Le Dantec, Dakar, Senegal.



Key populations bear a disproportionate HIV burden and have substantial unmet treatment needs. Routine viral load monitoring represents the gold standard for assessing treatment response at the individual and programme levels; at the population-level, community viral load is a metric of HIV programme effectiveness and can identify "hotspots" of HIV transmission. Nevertheless, there are specific implementation and ethical challenges to effectively operationalize and meaningfully interpret viral load data at the community level among these often marginalized populations.


Viral load monitoring enhances HIV treatment, and programme evaluation, and offers a better understanding of HIV surveillance and epidemic trends. Programmatically, viral load monitoring can provide data related to HIV service delivery coverage and quality, as well as inequities in treatment access and uptake. From a population perspective, community viral load data provides information on HIV transmission risk. Furthermore, viral load data can be used as an advocacy tool to demonstrate differences in service delivery and to promote allocation of resources to disproportionately affected key populations and communities with suboptimal health outcomes. However, in order to perform viral load monitoring for individual and programme benefit, health surveillance and advocacy purposes, careful consideration must be given to how such key population programmes are designed and implemented. For example, HIV risk factors, such as particular sex practices, sex work and drug use, are stigmatized or even criminalized in many contexts. Consequently, efforts must be taken so that routine viral load monitoring among marginalized populations does not cause inadvertent harm. Furthermore, given the challenges of reaching representative samples of key populations, significant attention to meaningful recruitment, decentralization of care and interpretation of results is needed. Finally, improving the interoperability of health systems through judicious use of biometrics or identifiers when confidentiality can be maintained is important to generate more valuable data to inform monitoring programmes.


Opportunities for expanded viral load monitoring could and should benefit all those affected by HIV, including key populations. The promise of the increasing routinization of viral load monitoring as a tool to advance HIV treatment equity is great and should be prioritized and appropriately implemented within key population programmatic and research agendas.


HIV ; Asia; epidemiology; implementation; key populations; sub-Saharan Africa; surveillance; viral load

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