How climate change is undermining the war against HIV in Africa

  • Written by  Inna Lazareva

Teenage girls growing up in Lesotho in areas hit by harsh drought and other climate shocks are more likely to drop out of school, start having sex earlier and contract HIV, researchers say.

In a study looking at the link between climate change and HIV infection since antiretroviral (ARV) treatment drugs became widely available in Sub-Saharan Africa, researchers found that severe drought threatens to drive new HIV infections.

In the urban areas of Lesotho researchers looked at, droughts were linked to an almost five-fold increase in the number of girls selling sex and a three-fold increase in those being forced into sexual relations.

Such findings mean climate shocks — which can bring displacement, loss of income and other problems — threaten to undermine progress made in HIV treatment, said Andrea Low, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the International Centre for AIDS Care and Treatment Programmes at Columbia University. “I think the real concern is that we have gained a lot in terms of epidemic control ... but there is always a possibility of losing all those gains if a lot of people are displaced due to climate extremes [and] forced migration.”

In Lesotho more than half the population lives on less than $1.90 a day according to World Bank, and 55% grow their own food, making them particularly vulnerable to drought

People forced to migrate as a result of drought may no longer have easy access to the support of family and friends or to HIV treatment, Low, the study’s lead author, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from New York.

People who lose the stability of their communities are more likely to engage in high-risk sex, acquire HIV or discontinue treatment for HIV, the study found. Widespread poverty and exposure to worsening droughts, floods and other climate risks make Africa one of the continents most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, UN disaster officials said.

Southern Africa experienced two years of an El Niño–induced regional drought — one of its worst in decades — in 2014–2015. In 2016, this resulted in food shortages and higher prices affecting almost 40-million people in the region, according to the World Food Programme.

In Lesotho more than half the population lives on less than $1.90 a day according to World Bank, and 55% grow their own food, making them particularly vulnerable to drought.

The country of 2.2-million also has the second highest rate of HIV prevalence in the world, behind nearby eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), according to the UN agency for HIV/AIDS.

Keeping girls in school

Low and her colleagues said ways of reducing HIV risk associated with climate shocks include providing easier access to medical care, distributing HIV self-testing kits and offering cash transfers to pay school fees for drought-hit families forced to migrate.

“We really need to think about the population in the long term,” Low said, noting it was vital to keep children in classrooms. “If that’s reduced every time there’s some kind of climate extreme and they have to pull their kids out of school, that is going to have really detrimental effects — not just on HIV but on all aspects of society.”

Lesotho’s neighbour eSwatini is facing some of the same threats, experts there said. Khulekani Magongo, executive director of the charity Young heroes (Swaziland), which works with vulnerable young people affected by HIV and other problems, said young girls are particularly affected.

“In most instances, girls from the rural areas move up to the bigger towns to look for jobs, and when they don’t find those jobs they tend to opt for sex work,” he said.

With more people on the move as a result of climate pressures, “there should be some kind of co-ordination in the region, so that people know they have safe access to prevention and care no matter where they are,” Low said. “That will be crucial as more and more people are forced to move ... due to climate extremes making it harder for them to survive in their communities.”

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