Abstinence-only programs for preventing HIV infection in high-income countries (as defined by the World Bank)

Abstinence-only programs are widespread and well-funded, particularly in the United States and countries supported by the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. On the premise that sexual abstinence is the best and only way to prevent HIV, abstinence-only interventions aim to prevent, stop, or decrease sexual activity. These programs differ from abstinence-plus designs: abstinence-plus programs promote safer-sex strategies (e.g., condom use) along with sexual abstinence, but abstinence-only programs do not, and instead often highlight the limitations of condom use. An up-to-date review suggests that abstinence-only programs do not affect HIV risk in low-income countries; this review examined the evidence in high-income countries.

This review included thirteen randomized controlled trials comparing abstinence-only programs to various control groups (e.g., "usual care," no intervention). Although we conducted an extensive international search for trials, all included studies enrolled youth in the US (total baseline enrollment=15,940 participants). Programs were conducted in schools, community centers, and family homes; all were delivered in family units or groups of young people. We could not conduct a meta-analysis because of missing data and variation in program designs. However, findings from the individual trials were remarkably consistent.

Overall, the trials did not indicate that abstinence-only programs can reduce HIV risk as indicated by behavioral outcomes (e.g., unprotected vaginal sex) or biological outcomes (e.g., sexually transmitted infection). Instead, the programs consistently had no effect on participants' incidence of unprotected vaginal sex, frequency of vaginal sex, number of sex partners, sexual initiation, or condom use.

One trial favored an abstinence-only program over usual care for incidence of vaginal sex (n=839), but this was limited to two-month follow-up and was offset by measurement error and six other studies with non-significant effects (n=2615).

One evaluation found several significant adverse (harmful) program effects: abstinence-only program participants were more likely than usual-care controls to report sexually transmitted infections (n=2711), pregnancy (n=1548), and increased frequency of vaginal sex (n=338). These effects were offset by high attrition and other studies showing non-significant effects.

We concluded that abstinence-only programs do not appear to reduce or exacerbate HIV risk among participants in high-income countries, although this evidence might not apply beyond US youth. Trial limitations included underreporting of relevant outcomes, reliance on program participants to report their behaviors accurately, and methodological weaknesses in the trials.

Authors' conclusions: 

Evidence does not indicate that abstinence-only interventions effectively decrease or exacerbate HIV risk among participants in high-income countries; trials suggest that the programs are ineffective, but generalizability may be limited to US youth. Should funding continue, additional resources could support rigorous evaluations with behavioral or biological outcomes. More trials comparing abstinence-only and abstinence-plus interventions are needed.

Read the full abstract...

Abstinence-only interventions promote sexual abstinence as the only means of preventing sexual acquisition of HIV; they do not promote safer-sex strategies (e.g., condom use). Although abstinence-only programs are widespread, there has been no internationally focused review of their effectiveness for HIV prevention in high-income countries.


To assess the effects of abstinence-only programs for HIV prevention in high-income countries.

Search strategy: 

We searched 30 electronic databases (e.g., CENTRAL, PubMed, EMBASE, AIDSLINE, PsycINFO) ending February 2007. Cross-referencing, handsearching, and contacting experts yielded additional citations through April 2007.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomized and quasi-randomized controlled trials evaluating abstinence-only interventions in high-income countries (defined by the World Bank). Interventions were any efforts to encourage sexual abstinence for HIV prevention; programs that also promoted safer-sex strategies were excluded. Results were biological and behavioral outcomes.

Data collection and analysis: 

Three reviewers independently appraised 20,070 records and 326 full-text papers for inclusion and methodological quality; 13 evaluations were included. Due to heterogeneity and data unavailability, we presented the results of individual studies instead of conducting a meta-analysis.

Main results: 

Studies involved 15,940 United States youth; participants were ethnically diverse. Seven programs were school-based, two were community-based, and one was delivered in family homes. Median final follow-up occurred 17 months after baseline.

Results showed no indications that abstinence-only programs can reduce HIV risk as indicated by self-reported biological and behavioral outcomes. Compared to various controls, the evaluated programs consistently did not affect incidence of unprotected vaginal sex, frequency of vaginal sex, number of partners, sexual initiation, or condom use.

One study found a significantly protective effect for incidence of recent vaginal sex (n=839), but this was limited to short-term follow-up, countered by measurement error, and offset by six studies with non-significant results (n=2615).

One study found significantly harmful effects for STI incidence (n=2711), pregnancy incidence (n=1548), and frequency of vaginal sex (n=338); these effects were also offset by studies with non-significant findings.

Methodological strengths included large samples, efforts to improve self-report, and analyses controlling for baseline values. Weaknesses included underutilization of relevant outcomes, underreporting of key data, self-report bias, and analyses neglecting attrition and clustered randomization.