INTRODUCTION: HIV incidence among women in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has declined steadily, but it is unknown whether new infections among women who engage in sex work (WESW) have declined at a similar rate. We synthesised estimates of HIV incidence among WESW in SSA and compared these to the wider female population to understand levels and trends in incidence over time.
METHODS: We searched Medline, Embase, Global Health, Popline, Web of Science, and Google Scholar from January 1990 to October 2022, and grey literature for estimates of HIV incidence among WESW in SSA. We included studies reporting empirical estimates in any SSA country. We calculated incidence rate ratios (IRR) compared to age-district-year matched total female population incidence estimates. We conducted a meta-analysis of IRRs and used a continuous mixed-effects model to estimate changes in IRR over time.
RESULTS: From 32 studies between 1985 and 2020, 2,194 new HIV infections were observed in WESW over 51,000 person-years (py). Median HIV incidence was 4.3/100py (IQR 2.8-7.0/100py), declining from a median of 5.96/100py between 1985 and 1995 to a median of 3.2/100py between 2010 and 2020. Incidence among WESW was nine times higher than in matched total population women (RR 8.6, 95%CI: 5.7-12.9), and greater in Western and Central Africa (RR 22.4, 95%CI: 11.3-44.3) than in Eastern and Southern Africa (RR 5.3, 95%CI: 3.7-7.6). Annual changes in log IRRs were minimal (-0.1% 95%CI: -6.9 to +6.8%).
CONCLUSIONS: Across SSA, HIV incidence among WESW remains disproportionately high compared to the total female population but showed similar rates of decline between 1990 and 2020. Improved surveillance and standardisation of approaches to obtain empirical estimates of sex worker incidence would enable a clearer understanding of whether we are on track to meet global targets for this population and better support data-driven HIV prevention programming.