Background: Whereas sexual relationships among low-risk individuals account for the majority of HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa, limited knowledge exists about the structure and characteristics of sexual networks among the general population in sub-Saharan Africa.
Objectives: To investigate the population-level structure of sexual networks connecting the young adult population of several villages on Likoma Island (Malawi), and analyse the structural position of HIV-positive individuals within the sexual network.
Design and methods: A cross-sectional sociocentric survey of sexual partnerships and biomarkers of prevalent HIV infections.
Results: The study documents the existence of a large and robust sexual network linking a substantial fraction of the island's young adult population: half of all sexually active respondents were connected in a giant network component, and more than a quarter were linked through multiple independent chains of sexual relationships. This high network connectivity emerges within short time frames. The prevalence of HIV also varied significantly across the network, with sparser regions having a higher HIV prevalence than densely connected components. Several risk factors related to sexual mixing patterns help explain differentials in HIV prevalence across network locations.
Conclusion: Contrary to claims that sexual networks in rural sub-Saharan Africa are too sparse to sustain generalized HIV epidemics, the structure of the networks observed in Likoma appears compatible with a broad diffusion of HIV among lower-risk groups. The non-homogeneous distribution of HIV infection within the network suggests that network characteristics are an important determinant of the dynamics of HIV spread within a population.