Spike feared over HIV in women

There are fears that climate change affecting food supply and livelihoods could spark an increase of HIV in women if they are forced into transactional sex to survive. | (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

There are fears that climate change affecting food supply and livelihoods could spark an increase of HIV in women if they are forced into transactional sex to survive. | (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP)

Published Feb 25, 2024


Durban — Climate change could increase the spread of HIV among women facing food insecurity as a result of drought in rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa, although those in South Africa might be less affected.

Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK said that as droughts became increasingly common, women were likely to turn to transactional sex when faced with poverty and food insecurity.

The findings of their study, published in Aids and Behavior this week, imply that the impact of drought triggered behavioural changes which could lead to higher instances of HIV transmission.

“South Africa has a lower percentage of people who rely on subsistence agriculture than the other Southern African countries, but South Africa does have a high HIV prevalence and there are still a substantial number of households undertaking agriculture, estimated to be around 2 million in 2016,” said lead author Dr Adam Trickey, who is based at Bristol Medical School.

“South Africa may be less affected by the potential mechanisms linking drought with HIV transmission than other countries in the region, but this is not yet clear and will require further research,” said Trickey.

He said women in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa who were recently exposed to drought were more likely to acquire HIV than those who had not been exposed to drought.

“That we found this among women in rural areas, but not women in urban areas or men in either rural or urban areas, corroborates previous studies indicating that the mechanism through which drought may increase HIV risk is that it pushes women who rely on farming for their livelihoods into sex work for money or food.

“Even if these changes were small, the large number of people living with HIV in Africa and the large percentage experiencing drought means the effect of droughts could still result in many people acquiring HIV in this situation, particularly when you consider that around 65% of Africa’s population relies on subsistence farming.

“And due to climate change, droughts are likely to become increasingly common in the future, which could lead to higher instances of HIV transmission,” said Trickey.

He said the research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, combined data from five nationally-representative surveys of more than 100 000 adults aged 15-59 carried out in 2016 in Eswatini, Lesotho, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. They linked these surveys to precipitation data and calculated whether each household was in an area that experienced less rainfall than usual in 2014-2016 compared with 1981-2016.

Trickey said this was used to define drought areas. Statistical models were then used to calculate whether people who had been exposed to a drought were more likely to have recently acquired HIV.

More research was needed to investigate the pathways that may link drought and HIV, said Trickey.

Meanwhile, the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC) has welcomed President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a Climate Response Fund in the State of the Nation Address. The PCC, an independent statutory body, aims to oversee and facilitate a just transition towards a low-emissions, climate-resilient economy.

“With our previous calls for increased domestic and international funding for climate action, we commit to actively support the conceptualisation of the fund mechanism, its funding sources and how it can carry out its functions efficiently. We will provide oversight for the fund, which we believe should be independently administered” said the deputy chairperson of the PCC Valli Moosa.

The PCC also applauded the National Assembly for passing the Climate Change Bill in October last year, paving the way for its concurrence in the National Council of Provinces.

“The bill, when it becomes law, will herald a new era in implementing an effective climate change response and support a just transition to a climate-resilient, equitable and internationally competitive low-carbon economy and society, which considers the risks and opportunities expected to arise in implementing the national climate change response,” it noted.

Independent on Saturday