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A woman who was diagnosed HIV positive speaks to another woman in South Africa.
Karin Schermbrucker/UNICEF
Food & Hunger

Hunger Is Linked to Testing Positive for HIV in South Africa, Says New Study


Why Global Citizens Should Care
The UN’s Global Goals call both for universal health and well-being, and for zero hunger. But the Global Goals aren’t separate goals, and many of the 17 goals overlap and tie into each other, as seen in this report from South Africa. Tackling them, as a result, is best viewed as a united mission. You can join us by taking action here in support of the Global Goals. 

A study of over 2,700 adults in KwaZulu Natal has identified a connection between food insecurity and a higher likelihood of being HIV positive in South Africa.

Researchers at three health care clinics in the province set out to work out whether food insecurity was presenting a barrier to testing, or whether it was a risk factor for HIV infection. 

And the report, published this week in the South African Journal of Science (SAJS),concluded that — even after taking socioeconomic and demographic variables into account — the chances of testing positive were “significantly higher” for people who had also reported hunger. 

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The findings reflect much of the research that has already been carried out in sub-Saharan Africa in terms of the connection between food insecurity and HIV, where “food insecurity has been shown to be associated with poor health and poor adherence to medication, including antiretroviral drugs,” according to the report

In neighbouring Botswana and Swaziland, for example, food insecurity has reportedly been suggested to be a major contributor to risky sexual behaviour and HIV spread. 

Those who report food insecurity “have been found to be less likely to use condoms than those who report food security,” said the report.

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In South Africa, meanwhile, fear of taking medication on an empty stomach as a result of not having enough food has been cited as one of the main reasons for not accepting free antiretroviral drugs.

South Africa has the biggest and most high profile HIV epidemic in the world, according to global HIV/AIDS charity Avert, with around 7.1 million people living with HIV in the country in 2016. 

And according to the SAJS report this week, failure to transform food-insecure households into food-secure households will translate into a failure to achieve the target to end AIDS as a global pandemic by 2030. 

“Despite South Africa willingly consenting to the SDGs, the proportions of at-risk and food-insecure households have remained largely unchanged over the years,” concluded the study

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“Considering the association between food insecurity and high-risk sexual behaviour that has been demonstrated by others among women in southern Africa, it is a likely contributory factor to the continued high HIV risk among young women and may explain the association we found in this study,” it said.

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“These findings highlight the important role that food insecurity plays in HIV risk, and are supported by findings from other sub-Saharan African countries,” it said. “Thus, interventions such as targeted food support in poor and food-insecure populations are key to mitigating vulnerability to HIV infection.” 

In an effort to achieve the goal to put a stop to the spread of HIV/AIDS, the UN’s HIV/AIDS programme, UNAIDS, launched its 90-90-90 initiative; meaning that by 2020, it aims for 90% of all people living with HIV will be tested and know their status; of those tested positive, 90% will be on antiretroviral treatment; and 90% of those on antiretroviral treatment will achieve viral suppression. 


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