Background: Antiretroviral treatment (ART) reduces HIV infectiousness but the effect of early ART on sexual behaviour is unclear.
Methods: We assessed, within the START randomized trial that enrolled HIV-positive adults with CD4+ cell count greater than 500 cells/μl, the effect of early (immediate) versus deferred ART on: condomless sex with HIV-serodifferent partners (CLS-D); all condomless sex (CLS); HIV transmission-risk sex (CLS-D-HIV risk, defined as CLS-D and: not on ART or started ART <6 months ago or viral load greater than 200 copies/ml or no viral load in past 6 months), during 2-year follow-up. Month-12 CLS-D (2010–2014) was the primary outcome.
Results: Among 2562 MSM, there was no difference between immediate and deferred arms in CLS-D at month 12 [12.6 versus 13.1%; difference (95% CI): −0.4% (−3.1 to 2.2%), P = 0.75] or month 24, or in CLS. Among 2010 heterosexual men and women, CLS-D at month 12 tended to be higher in the immediate versus deferred arm [10.8 versus 8.3%; difference:2.5% (−0.1 to 5.2%), P = 0.062]; the difference was greater at month 24 [9.3 versus 5.6%; difference: 3.7% (1.0 to 6.4%), P = 0.007], at which time CLS was higher in the immediate arm (20.7 versus 15.7%, P = 0.013). CLS-D-HIV risk at month 12 was substantially lower in the immediate versus deferred arm for MSM [0.2 versus 11%; difference: −10.7% (−12.5 to −8.9%), P < 0.001] and heterosexuals [0.6% versus 7.7%; difference: −7.0% (−8.8 to −5.3%), P < 0.001], because of viral suppression on ART.
Conclusion: A strategy of early ART had no effect on condomless sex with HIV-serodifferent partners among MSM, but resulted in modestly higher prevalence among heterosexuals. However, among MSM and heterosexuals, early ART resulted in a substantial reduction in HIV-transmission-risk sex, to a very low absolute level.