Background: Advances in viral sequence analysis make it possible to track the spread of infectious pathogens, such as HIV, within a population. When used to study HIV, these analyses (i.e., molecular epidemiology) potentially allow inference of the identity of individual research subjects. Current privacy standards are likely insufficient for this type of public health research. To address this challenge, it will be important to understand how stakeholders feel about the benefits and risks of such research.
Design and Methods: To better understand perceived benefits and risks of these research methods, in-depth qualitative interviews were conducted with HIV-infected individuals, individuals at high-risk for contracting HIV, and professionals in HIV care and prevention. To gather additional perspectives, attendees to a public lecture on molecular epidemiology were asked to complete an informal questionnaire.
Results: Among those interviewed and polled, there was near unanimous support for using molecular epidemiology to study HIV. Questionnaires showed strong agreement about benefits of molecular epidemiology, but diverse attitudes regarding risks. Interviewees acknowledged several risks, including privacy breaches and provocation of anti-gay sentiment. The interviews also demonstrated a possibility that misunderstandings about molecular epidemiology may affect how risks and benefits are evaluated.
Conclusions: While nearly all study participants agree that the benefits of HIV molecular epidemiology outweigh the risks, concerns about privacy must be addressed to ensure continued trust in research institutions and willingness to participate in research.