Interpreting declines in HIV test positivity: an analysis of routine data from Zimbabwe's national sex work programme, 2009-2019

Harriet S. Jones, Bernadette Hensen, Sithembile Musemburi, Lilian Chinyanganya, Albert Takaruza, Sungai T. Chabata, Primrose Matambanadzo, Brian Rice, Frances M. Cowan, James R. Hargreaves

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Early diagnosis of HIV is critical for epidemic control. To achieve this, successful testing programmes are essential and test positivity is often used as a marker of their performance. The aim of this study was to analyse trends and predictors of HIV test positivity over time and explore how an understanding of seroconversion rates could build on our interpretation of this indicator among female sex workers in Zimbabwe. 


We analysed HIV test data from Zimbabwe's nationally scaled sex work programme between 2009 and 2019. We defined test positivity as the proportion of all tests that were HIV positive and measured new diagnoses by estimating seroconversion rates among women with repeat tests, defined as an HIV-positive test after at least one HIV-negative test in the programme. We used logistic regression to analyse test positivity over three time-periods: 2009-2013, 2014-2017 and 2018-2019, adjusting for potential confounding by demographic factors and the mediating effects of time since last HIV test. We calculated the seroconversion rates for the same time-periods. 


During the 10-year study period, 54,503 tests were recorded in 39,462 women. Between 2009 and 2013, 18% of tests were among women who reported testing in the previous 6 months. By 2018-2019, this had increased to 57%. Between 2018 and 2019, test positivity was 9.6%, compared to 47.9% for 2009-2013 (aOR 6.08 95% CI 5.52-6.70) and 18.8% for 2014-2017 (aOR 2.17 95% CI 2.06-2.28). Adjusting for time since last test reduced effect estimates for 2009-2013 (aOR 4.03 95% CI 3.64-4.45) and 2014-2017 (aOR 1.97 95% CI 1.86-2.09) compared to 2018-2019. Among 7573 women with an initial HIV-negative test in the programme and at least one subsequent test, 464 tested HIV positive at a rate of 3.9 per 100 pyar (95% CI 3.5-4.2). 


Test positivity decreased among women testing through the programme over time, while seroconversion rates remained high. These declines were partly driven by changes in individual testing history, reflecting comprehensive coverage of testing services and greater knowledge of HIV status, but not necessarily declining rates of seroconversion. Understanding testing history and monitoring new HIV infections from repeat tests could strengthen the interpretation of test positivity and provide a better understanding of programme performance.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere25943
JournalJournal of the International AIDS Society
Issue number7
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • Africa
  • HIV epidemiology
  • HIV prevention
  • key and vulnerable populations
  • sex workers
  • testing


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