HIV/AIDS in Africa

South Africa has the highest number of people estimated to be living with HIV and AIDS in any country. The HIV virus weakens the immune system putting a person at high risk for developing AIDS and the resulting opportunistic infections associated with this disease. Presently, the origin of HIV has been linked to chimpanzees. HIV is a descendant of a Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, and SIVcpz, the strain found in chimpanzees, is most closely related to HIV-1. Furthermore, it is hypothesized that SIVcpz was transferred to humans from consumption of chimps or from getting blood into the bloodstream through a hunters open wound. (HIV) Those individuals at higher levels of risk include sex workers, injecting drug users, men engaging in sexual relations with other men (and their respective sexual partners), as well as women and youths. Nonetheless, “individual choices and cultural norms encouraging ‘promiscuity’ cannot be exclusively blamed for spreading the epidemic.” (Ramin)

Dr. Debie LeBeau Spence is a medical anthropologist that examined “socio-structural factors that affects the spread of HIV and its impact on populations, HIV vulnerability among migrants, and link between HIV transmission and alcohol consumption and sexual relationships in Namibia and southern Africa.” She has identified inconsistent condom use, limited social pressure, poverty, migrancy and alcohol abuse as the contributing factors influencing the continual spread of HIV. (Spence)

Additionally, women are largely targeted for spreading HIV. Dr. Spence discerns that lower social status facilitates susceptibility to HIV infections so women are at greater risk for AIDS due to their lower socio-economic status. In addition to limiting control over finances and social status, women’s daily living responsibilities, exposure to gender inequality and discrimination and victimization such as rape and intimate partner violence deters women from taking advantage of preventive measures and weakening their defenselessness to this virus. (Spence)

Advocating abstinence/monogamy and promoting condom use are two strategies that have been employed by UNAIDS to address this pandemic. However, there are socio-cultural, economic, political and religious barriers that prevent condom use by the people living in sub-Saharan Africa. They believe using condoms places a restriction on intimacy, implicates oneself or their partners as carriers for HIV and that the sexual behavior they practice is stigmatized. (Ramin)


“HIV & AIDS in South Africa.” HIV and AIDS Information and Resources. <>.

Ramin, Brodie. “Anthropology speaks to medicine: the case HIV/AIDS in Africa.” McGill Journal of Medicine: MJM 10.2 (2007): 127-132. <>.

Spence, Debie LeBeau, Dr. “HIV and AIDS Research and Publications by Dr. Debbie LeBeau Spence.” HIV and AIDS in Africa. (2009) <>.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Melinda Zielinski says:

    HIV/AIDs is a huge ongoing problem in South Africa. From what I have been told previously and reading your response South Africa has the highest rates of HIV/AIDs. From what I understand from your article anthropologists used qualitative methods and fieldwork in order to examine this health issue. They found many issues with why trying to find cures and stopping the spread of the virus has been difficult. This is due to factors outside of biomedicine such as cultural and social factors. As you said “they (South African People) believe using condoms places a restriction on intimacy, implicates oneself or their partners as carriers for HIV and that the sexual behavior they practice is stigmatized.” Doctors have medicine to not cure, but prolong life of people living with HIV/AIDs. However, that means nothing if the people aren’t coming to receive treatments. It is important to have a medical anthropologist because they can identify why people aren’t coming in for treatments such as the reasons listed above. Anthropology contributes a better understanding of this issue because they can identify non-biomedical factors that contribute to the illness. A personal example, I learned about HIV/AIDs in my sociology class and one of the reasons the high rates of the virus were because of social stigmas. One social stigma in specific is if a woman has HIV/AIDs they were unfaithful to their husbands and shamed for it. When in reality most women contract it from their husbands who are unfaithful. Regardless women weren’t going in for treatments because they didn’t want anyone to know. They would be shamed and out casted for it. This is why medical anthropologists contribute a better understanding of this virus because biomedical doctors would not know this is a reason for women not coming in for treatments. It takes a medical anthropologist to live, observe, and conduct fieldwork among the people in order to find the social stigmas associated with illness and in return contribute to a better understanding. They need to conduct a more confidential and discrete system in South Africa for treatments and they will most likely receive better success rates of treatment.

  2. Megan Bergeron says:

    Haley, I found it very interesting that the origin of HIV is linked to chimpanzees. I did not previously know this. I also think you did a really good job of presenting HIV/AIDS and discussing Dr. Debbie LeBeau Spence’s article.

    Alright, time to get back on track. The article by Dr. Debbie LeBeau Spence, a medical anthropologist, used both quantitative and quantitative methods to study HIV and AIDS in Namibia and southern Africa. Her and her team studied the socio-structural factors that affect the spread of HIV and its impact on populations. As Haley stated the team’s “findings indicate that gender inequality is a social structural factor that places women at greater risk of HIV infection due to their inability to lower risk-taking behavior.” They are unable to lower this because of their dependence on men, gender based violence and women’s social status.

    By applying anthropology to the global health problem of HIV/AIDS one is better able to understand more aspects of the health problem. Anthropology focuses on so much more than biomedicine. Anthropology looks at culture and its influences on treatments, patient behavior and diagnosis. As Melinda suggested, an anthropologist will be able to provide insight to doctors that they may otherwise overlook.

  3. Moriah Hill says:

    With HIV and AIDS being so common all over the world, it is most common in South Africa. South Africa is known to have the highest rates of people infected with HIV and AIDS. HIV and AIDs have become global because it’s being spread between countries just like any other virus or disease, through traveling. When people travel and get these disease and viruses then travel back home they are bringing them back with them unknowingly or sometimes knowingly.
    In the article, Debbie Lebeau, a medical anthropologist studied the HIV and AIDs in South Africa through a lot of field work where she put herself in their setting and observed closely. Debbie also did qualitative and quantitative research on the virus in South Africa to further her studies. As Haley said “advocating abstinence/monogamy and promoting condom use are two strategies that have been employed by UNAIDS to address this pandemic” but what Debbie discovered was that I’m South Africa they do not like using condoms during sexual intercourse because the people feels that it limits or decreases sexual intimacy. Which further explains why it is easier for the virus to spread among people in South Africa. The anthropologists are there to help aid doctors in finding ways to treat this virus, by providing information on the African culture and how they perceive things that deal with HIV and AIDs.

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