Do support groups members disclose less to their partners? the dynamics of HIV disclosure in four African countries

To appear in BMC Public Health.

Background: Recent efforts to curtail the HIV epidemic in Africa have emphasized preventing sexual transmission to partners through antiretroviral therapy. A component of current strategies is disclosure to partners, thus understanding its motivations will help maximise results. This study examines the rates, dynamics and consequences of partner disclosure in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda, with special attention to the role of support groups and stigma in disclosure.

Methods: The study employs mixed methods, including a cross-sectional client survey of counseling and testing services, focus groups, and in-depth interviews with HIV-positive individuals in stable partnerships in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda, recruited at healthcare facilities offering HIV testing.

Results: Rates of disclosure to partners varied between countries (32.7% – 92.7%). The lowest rate was reported in Malawi. Reasons for disclosure included preventing the transmission of HIV, the need for care, and upholding the integrity of the relationship. Fear of stigma was an important reason for non-disclosure. Women reported experiencing more negative reactions when disclosing to partners. Disclosure was positively associated with living in urban areas, higher education levels, and being male, while being negatively associated with membership to support groups.

Conclusions: Understanding of reasons for disclosure and recognition of the role of support groups in the process can help improve current prevention efforts, that increasingly focus on treatment as prevention as a way to halt new infections. Support groups can help spread secondary prevention messages, by explaining to their members that antiretroviral treatment has benefits for HIV positive individuals and their partners. Home-based testing can further facilitate partner disclosure, as couples can test together and be counseled jointly.