Spread of HIV spikes in times before war

The rate of new HIV infections appears to be worst in the five-year period leading up to violent conflict, says Brady Bennett. "It implies that there is something going on in social, political, and health care environments in those years that are conducive to HIV spread." Above, a Ugandan soldier in 2012, northwest of the Somali capital of Mogadishu. (Credit: Stuart Price/AU-UN IST Photo via AMISOM Public Information/Flickr)

A new study of the relationship between violent conflict and HIV incidence in sub-Saharan Africa suggests the rate of new infections may be worst in the five-year period leading up to bloodshed.

“It implies that there is something going on in social, political, and health care environments in those years that are conducive to HIV spread,” says Brady Bennett, lead author of a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Prior research examining how war may affect the HIV epidemic have produced mixed, and even conflicting, results, says senior author Mark Lurie, associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health. Lurie and Bennett, who was earning a master of public health degree at Brown, wanted to produce a comprehensive data set with more rigorous analysis.

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The new study tracked HIV incidence statistics in 36 sub-Saharan countries from 1990 through 2012 and correlated them with periods of conflict and peace in each country. They were therefore able to calculate how the incidence rose and fell in each country in relation to violence, while controlling for other factors such as economic development, refugee influx, and the year of the region’s broader epidemic, which generally peaked in 1996.

Compared to times of peace, HIV incidence increased by 2.1 infections per 1,000 people a year in the five years before a conflict. The findings also show that during conflict, the incidence rate declined by 0.07 infections per 1,000 people, compared to times of peace. The study defines conflict as violence that claims at least 25 battle-related deaths. As conflicts became more bloody, HIV incidence tended to drift down a bit more.

Each country in the study had a different HIV trajectory through war and peace (some had no conflict at all), but countries such as Burundi, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Uganda all endured their highest HIV incidence rates in periods before conflict and lower rates during conflict.

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The study does not explain what is going on overall or in any single country that might account for changes in HIV incidence. The finding that HIV incidence might decline during intense conflict is likely not because conflict somehow makes anything better. Instead, fighting likely undermines accurate data collection, leaving many new infections undetected.

More research is urgently needed, Bennett says, to understand how the descent into conflict may lead to faster HIV spread. Determining the answers could make governments and aid organizations more effective in preventing the problem from arising.

Waiting to intervene until conflict is already underway may miss a major opportunity to prevent new infections, Lurie says.

“What our paper points to is that we need to better understand the precipitating factors that drive conflict precisely because we’ve identified that as a period of particular vulnerability where HIV incidence is likely to be increased.”

Source: Brown University