The role of voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) in changing risk behaviors related to HIV

Learning one's HIV status and receiving counseling is an important step to receiving HIV-related care and treatment, but also an important intervention for potentially changing risk behaviors related to HIV. A systematic review of the literature and a quantitative assessment found that VCT is an effective strategy for reducing some HIV-related risk behaviors, including decreasing the number of sexual partners of participants. Condom use was also significantly increased among participants who tested HIV-positive during VCT. Future research is needed to understand how VCT can be delivered more effectively to maximize its potential as an HIV prevention strategy.

Authors' conclusions: 

These findings add to growing evidence that VCT can change HIV-related sexual risk behaviors thereby reducing HIV-related risk, and confirming its importance as an HIV prevention strategy. To maximize the effectiveness of VCT, more studies should be conducted to understand which modalities and counseling strategies produce significant reductions in risky behaviors and lead to the greatest uptake of VCT.

Read the full abstract...

Voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) continues to play a critical role in HIV prevention, care and treatment. In recent years, different modalities of VCT have been implemented, including clinic-, mobile- and home-based testing and counseling. This review assesses the effects of all VCT types on HIV-related risk behaviors in low- and middle-income countries.


The primary objective of this review is to systematically review the literature examining the efficacy of VCT in changing HIV-related risk behaviors in developing countries across various populations.

Search strategy: 

Five electronic databases – PubMed, Excerpta Medica Database (EMBASE), PsycINFO, Sociological Abstracts, and the Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature (CINAHL) – were searched using predetermined key words and phrases. Hand-searching was conducted in four key journals including AIDS, AIDS and Behavior, AIDS Education and Prevention, and AIDS Care; the tables of contents of these four journals during the included time period were individually screened for relevant articles. The reference lists of all articles included in the review were screened to identify any additional studies; this process was iterated until no additional articles were found.

Selection criteria: 

To be included in the review, eligible studies had to meet the following inclusion criteria: 1) Take place in a low- or middle-income country as defined by the World Bank, 2) Published in a peer-reviewed journal between January 1, 1990 and July 6, 2010, 3) Involve client-initiated VCT, including pre-test counseling, HIV-testing, and post-test counseling, and 4) Use a pre/post or multi-arm design that compares individuals before and after receiving VCT or individuals who received VCT to those who did not, and 5) Report results pertaining to behavioral, psychological, biological, or social HIV-related outcomes.

Data collection and analysis: 

All citations were initially screened and all relevant citations were independently screened by two reviewers to assess eligibility. For all included studies data were extracted by two team members working independently using a standardized form.  Differences were resolved through consensus or discussion with the study coordinator when necessary. Study rigor was assessed using an eight point quality score and through the Cochrane Collaboration's Risk of Bias Assessment Tool. Outcomes comparable across studies, including condom use and number of sex partners, were meta-analyzed using random effects models. With respect to both meta-analyses, data were included from multi-arm studies and from pre/post studies if adequate data were provided. Other outcomes, including HIV-incidence, STI incidence/prevalence, and positive and negative life events were synthesized qualitatively. For meta-analysis, all outcomes were converted to the standard metric of the odds ratio. If an outcome could not be converted to an odds ratio, the study was excluded from analysis.

Main results: 

 An initial search yielded 2808 citations. After excluding studies failing to meet the inclusion criteria, 19 were deemed eligible for inclusion. Of these studies, two presented duplicate data and were removed. The remaining 17 studies were included in the qualitative synthesis and 8 studies were meta-analyzed.  Twelve studies offered  clinic-based VCT, 3 were employment-based, 1 involved mobile VCT, and 1 provided home-based VCT.  In meta-analysis, the odds of reporting increased number of sexual partners were reduced when comparing participants who received VCT to those who did not, unadjusted random effects pooled OR= 0.69 (95% CI: 0.53-0.90, p=0.007). When stratified by serostatus, these results only remained significant for those who tested HIV-positive. There was an insignificant increase in the odds of condom use/protected sex among participants who received VCT compared to those who did not, unadjusted random effects pooled OR=1.39 (95% CI: 0.97-1.99, p=0.076). When stratified by HIV status, this effect became significant among HIV-positive participants, random effects pooled OR= 3.24 (95% CI: 2.29-4.58, p<0.001).