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Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D.

Food Insecurity and HIV

By April 13, 2012

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An interesting article in PLOS Medicine looks at the relationship between food insecurity - uncertain or inconsistent access to food - and factors associated with increased risk for HIV. The study, which examined more than 15,000 Brazilian women over a period of one year, assessed food insecurity, hunger, condom use, and whether women had an itchy vaginal discharge that might be a sign of a sexually transmitted infection. They found that women suffering from food insecurity were significantly less likely to consistently use condoms, or to have used condoms at last intercourse, and that food insecure women were also more likely to have experienced vaginal discharge.

What's the relationship between food insecurity and STDs? It's possible that women who are uncertain of their food supply might be more willing to engage in transactional sex - where sex is exchanged for food, money, or other goods. They might also be at increased risk of infection due to low BMI or poor nutritional status. However, although both hypotheses were assessed in the study, neither clearly stood out as an explanation. Addressing food insecurity might be an effective and socially acceptable way to reduce women's risk of HIV, but if it works, we still need to figure out why.

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