Changing Sexual Habits Caused by Economic Decline Contributing to Decrease in Recorded HIV Cases in Zimbabwe, Researchers Say
Economic decline fueled by rising inflation in Zimbabwe has changed the sexual habits of some men in the country, which might be contributing to the decreasing number of HIV cases recorded in the country, some researchers have said recently, the Washington Post reports (Timberg, Washington Post, 7/13).
Zimbabwe's inflation rate -- which is more than 1,700% -- has led to shortages of foreign exchange, food and fuel, and rising unemployment and poverty. About 3,000 Zimbabweans die weekly from AIDS-related illnesses, and one in four children in the country has lost one or both parents to the disease, according to UNICEF (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 3/19). About one in five Zimbabwean adults is living with HIV, but recent surveys show that HIV cases have decreased in recent years. The most recent nationwide survey, which was conducted in 2005 and 2006, estimated the country's adult HIV prevalence at 18.1%. Researchers say that the prevalence peaked a few years earlier at 25%, according to the Post.
HIV/AIDS advocates and some researchers for many years have said that Africa's high poverty rates are contributing to the spread of HIV on the continent because poor medical care and hunger place people at an increased risk of the virus, while poverty makes some women resort to commercial sex work. However, Zimbabwe's "experience shows that the connection between AIDS and economics is not nearly so straightforward," according to the Post. While Zimbabwe has "made strides against HIV during eight years of steep recession," wealthier neighboring countries, such as Botswana and South Africa, have "struggled to curb" new cases "despite much higher levels of development and massive spending on the disease," the Post reports.
Some researchers believe that economic growth -- seen in rising truck traffic, growing bar scenes and an increasing income disparity -- encourage behavior that can fuel the spread of sexually transmitted infections. However, low-income men in Zimbabwe "pare back" such behavior, which also includes having multiple sex partners, making them less likely to contract or spread HIV, the Post reports. According to surveys, men in Zimbabwe reported having fewer girlfriends, fewer visits to commercial sex workers and less casual sex. They also reported that they are abandoning what Zimbabweans call "small houses" -- a practice where married men pay rent and other living expenses for a second or third regular sex partner. According to the Post, condoms rarely are used in these situations, "creating webs of unprotected sex easily infiltrated by HIV."
Godrey Woelk, an epidemiologist at the University of Zimbabwe, said, "Having a lot of girlfriends or having 'small houses', you've got to have a degree of disposable income." He added, "Being poor and being in love does not really work." Elliot Mandaza, a pastor at New Life Covenant Church in Harare, said few men can afford to have several sex partners. The practice is "by and large now the preserve of the wealthy," he said, adding, "You have a 'small house' if you have the money" (Washington Post, 7/13).