Harsha Thirumurthy

PDRI Co-Director, Professor | Medical Ethics & Health Policy, Perelman School of Medicine

Harsha Thirumurthy is an Professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Associate Director at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics and a Research Associate at Penn’s Population Studies Center. Professor Thirumurthy’s interests lie at the intersection of economics and public health. A major goal of his research is to use insights from economics and psychology to design and evaluate interventions that can improve health outcomes in low-income settings. His research has also studied the economic impacts of large-scale health initiatives.

Dr. Thirumurthy has led numerous randomized trials of behavioral interventions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. He has published peer-reviewed articles in leading journals in economics, public health, and medicine, including JAMA, The Lancet HIV, PLOS Medicine, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Public Economics, and the American Economic Journal-Applied Economics. Dr. Thirumurthy completed a Ph.D. in economics at Yale University. He is an Affiliate of the Bureau for Research on the Economic Analysis of Development and Chair of the Population Sciences review panel at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Selected Publications

Philip SmithAlison ButtenheimLaura SchmuckerLinda-Gail BekkerHarsha ThirumurthyDvora L. Joseph Davey
(2021). Undetectable = Untransmittable (U = U) Messaging Increases Uptake of HIV Testing Among Men: Results from a Pilot Cluster Randomized Trial. AIDS Behav. 31:1–9.  Epub ahead of print.

HIV testing coverage in sub-Saharan Africa is lower among men than women. We investigated the impact of a peer-delivered U = U (undetectable equals untransmittable) message on men’s HIV testing uptake through a cluster randomized trial with individual mobile clinic days as a unit of randomisation.

On standard of care (SOC) days, peer promoters informed men about the availability of HIV testing at the mobile clinic. On intervention days, peer promoters delivered U = U messages. We used logistic regression adjusting for mobile clinic location, clustering by study day, to determine the percentage of invited men who tested for HIV at the mobile clinic.

Peer promoters delivered 1048 invitations over 12 days. In the SOC group, 68 (13%) of 544 men invited tested for HIV (3, 4.4% HIV-positive). In the U = U group, 112 (22%) of 504 men invited tested for HIV (7, 6.3% HIV-positive). Men in the U = U group had greater odds of testing for HIV (adjusted odds ratio = 1.89, 95% CI 1.21-2.95; p = 0.01).

Tailored, peer-delivered messages that explain the benefits of HIV treatment in reducing HIV transmission can increase men’s HIV testing uptake.

Nolan M KavanaghNoora MarcusRisper BosireBrian OtienoElizabeth F. BairKawango AgotHarsha Thirumurthy

(2021). Health and Economic Outcomes Associated With COVID-19 in Women at High Risk of HIV Infection in Rural Kenya. JAMA Network Open. 4(6):e2113787.

PDRI Co-Director, Harsha Thirumurthy, coauthored an article inJAMA Network Open exploring how COVID-19 lockdowns influenced the economic well-being, food security, and sexual behavior of vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries. Findings from a survey in Kenya show lockdowns were associated with declines in employment, income, and numbers of sexual partners, suggesting negative economic impacts and temporarily reduced HIV risk in vulnerable populations.

Gabriel ChamieDalsone KwarisiimaAlex NdyabakiraKara MarsonCarol S. CamlinDiane V. HavlirMoses R. KamyaHarsha Thirumurthy

(2021).  “Financial incentives and deposit contracts to promote HIV retesting in Uganda: A randomized trial.” PLOS Medicine


Frequent retesting for HIV among persons at increased risk of HIV infection is critical to early HIV diagnosis of persons and delivery of combination HIV prevention services. There are few evidence-based interventions for promoting frequent retesting for HIV. We sought to determine the effectiveness of financial incentives and deposit contracts in promoting quarterly HIV retesting among adults at increased risk of HIV.