Spiraling rates of HIV infection in Africa, especially amongst Africa’s gay population, have been attributed to “a wall of silence, repression and discrimination” by Oxford scientists who have posted their findings in a paper made available through online journal the Lancet.
A research team at Oxford University, London, examined studies on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in sub-Saharan Africa taken from 2003 to 2009. They found that there was a huge prevalence amongst men who had sexual relationships with other men, and found that, in some areas of Africa, the rate of infection was up to ten times higher than in solely heterosexual men from the same region.
This higher rate, which varies throughout Africa but demonstrates a trend of nearly always being higher in men who have had sexual contact with other men, is “driven by cultural, religious and political unwillingness to accept [gay men] as equal members of society,” the research concludes.
One of the researchers, Adrian Smith, noted that a “profound stigma and social hostility at every level of society concerning… same-sex behaviors amongst men” created an inability to reach and educate the individuals involved.
In the same interview logged with the BBC, Smith also told that the study’s findings demonstrated another worrying trend: that because homosexuality was so stigmatized in the first instance, gay men were more likely to be affiliated with other forms of risky behavior, such as intravenous drug use and prostitution, increasing their risk of contracting and passing on the HIV virus yet further still.
The research paper also found that because of the taboo nature attached to homosexuality, many gay men would also have female partners, perhaps even wives and children. Because of this, the impact of stigmatizing homosexuality resulted in increased risk behaviors by men trying to cover up their same-sex attraction, spreading HIV to their female partners, passing the disease to their children and so on, meaning that these findings had greater significance than just impacting Africa’s gay community: they hold national impetus.
Education is the Focus for Halting the AIDS Crisis
Statistics are difficult to come by for gauging exactly how many gay men reside in Africa, so calculating the true proportion of those infected is problematic, and reaching them in order to educate on safe-sex and HIV awareness almost impossible. Even more worryingly, of men identifying as heterosexual but having had sexual contact with other men, the study also found that those men believed that it wasn’t possible to contract HIV through anal intercourse with someone of the same gender.
What is required of aid agencies, the study says, is to make readily available basic health care messages, and perhaps most importantly, to have every person who could be infected tested. This is something the report says needs to be backed by the African government, who have, in the past, been reticent to tackle the AIDS crisis.
The journal notes that there could currently be over 21,000 Africans who are HIV-positive but do not know it. But, in order to educate those involved correctly, the paper reports that only a radical reform in attitudes toward gay men and homosexuality within Africa’s government and general population will do, as well as a reassessment of the use of condoms, which, due to deep religiosity in the country, remains a hotly debated topic.
Finally, to put into perspective how truly disturbing this report might be, figures issued by the UN agency UNAIDS estimates that there are 33 million people with HIV in the world. Approximately two-thirds live in sub-Saharan Africa. Many are worried that the world is now fast approaching a global tipping point, at which point the AIDS epidemic will be beyond control. Recent reports suggest India and Former Soviet States such as Russia might already be nearing the brink.
The AIDS crisis in Africa is well known, but with South Africa having just cut funding to AIDS vaccine research, and a new report suggesting that HIV vaccine research funding has decreased worldwide for the first time since 2000, demonstrating a 10 percent drop since 2008, it seems the message of just how serious the HIV/AIDS crisis is may no longer be getting through.
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