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Global AIDS policy still treats HIV as an exceptional case, abstracting from the context in which infection occurs. Policy is based on a simplistic theory of HIV causation, and evaluated using outdated tools of health economics. Recent calls for a health systems strategy – preventing and treating HIV within a programme of comprehensive health care – have not yet influenced the silo approach of AIDS policy.

Evidence continues to accumulate, showing that multiple factors, such as malnutrition, malaria and helminthes, increase the risk of sexual and vertical transmission of HIV. Moreover, complementary interventions that reduce viral load, improve immune response, and interrupt pathways of transmission could increase the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs and other tools of AIDS policy.

In health economics, the omission of estimates of increasing returns generated by disease or treatment synergies biases cost-effectiveness analysis against multiple, yet inexpensive, interventions. Current tools of cost-effectiveness analysis only identify local maxima in a complex landscape, and can play, at best, a marginal role in the epidemic, especially where it is already generalized.

Cost-effectiveness analyses for HIV that are based on the wrong epidemiological model can generate Type III errors: we get precise answers to the wrong questions about how to intervene. To control the epidemic, AIDS policy needs to utilize an epidemiological model that reflects the interactions of biological as well as behavioural variables that determine the course of HIV epidemics around the world. Cost-effectiveness analysis can benefit from using economic concepts of externalities and increasing returns to incorporate disease interactions and beneficial treatment spillovers for coinfections in HIV-prevention policy.


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