ICASA 2008: Men who have sex with men and HIV in Africa

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ICASA 2008: Men who have sex with men and HIV in Africa

07 December 2008

From Cape Town to Lagos, several new studies are starting to provide a better understanding of men who have sex with men (MSM) within the context of HIV in Africa.

“Homosexuality is very much understudied in West Africa, and in Nigeria it is criminalized, making it difficult to reach MSM,” said Sylvia Adebajo, a researcher at the University of Lagos, Nigeria. “As a result, the lives of MSM are characterized by denial, violence, and stigmatization”.

Ms Adebajo was speaking at an ICASA session held yesterday on men who have sex with men and HIV infection in Africa. She said that a significant hurdle in reaching out to MSM in Africa, and in particular in West Africa, is criminalization; few MSM come forward for fear of stigma, discrimination, and legal repercussions.

At this forum researchers presented several findings, some preliminary, that shared similar conclusions: HIV prevalence for MSM is many times higher than ‘background populations’, few self-identified MSM seek medical support or identify themselves in their communities, startling numbers do not wear condoms when having sex, many engage in bisexual behaviour, and few get tested to know their HIV status.

“Many MSM when they finally had a HIV test and it was positive, had not known their status and had continued to engage in high-risk behaviour for some time,” said researcher Earl Ryan Burrell of the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation. “HIV programmes in South Africa are heavily heterosexual and female focused… more recognition of MSM as a risk group is needed,” he added. His ongoing study in Cape Town and its surrounding townships showed that many MSM are not aware of the risks associated with certain sexual acts, despite self-identifying as MSM and having varying levels of access to HIV prevention information.

A study completed in 2006 in Nigeria revealed that little is known about the link between HIV prevalence and MSM in the country. But of those surveyed nearly all reported having multiple concurrent partnerships with both male and female sexual partners. Condom use was low and when condoms were worn, many men used saliva or soap or oil-based lubricants, such as domestic cooking oil which can damage the surface of  condom.

The researchers ended the session by encouraging African governments to invest more resources in supporting HIV prevention and, most importantly, to recognize MSM as a group that requires tailored programmes. “More is needed to be known. Each of these communities have their unique prevention and treatment needs,” said Ms Adebajo.