In Botswana, an estimated 24% of adults ages 15–49 years are infected with HIV. While alcohol use is strongly associated with HIV infection in Africa, few population-based studies have characterized the association of alcohol use with specific high-risk sexual behaviors.
Methods and Findings
We conducted a cross-sectional, population-based study of 1,268 adults from five districts in Botswana using a stratified two-stage probability sample design. Multivariate logistic regression was used to assess correlates of heavy alcohol consumption (>14 drinks/week for women, and >21 drinks/week for men) as a dependent variable. We also assessed gender-specific associations between alcohol use as a primary independent variable (categorized as none, moderate, problem and heavy drinking) and several risky sex outcomes including: (a) having unprotected sex with a nonmonogamous partner; (b) having multiple sexual partners; and (c) paying for or selling sex in exchange for money or other resources. Criteria for heavy drinking were met by 31% of men and 17% of women. Adjusted correlates of heavy alcohol use included male gender, intergenerational relationships (age gap ≥10 y), higher education, and living with a sexual partner. Among men, heavy alcohol use was associated with higher odds of all risky sex outcomes examined, including unprotected sex (AOR = 3.48; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.65 to 7.32), multiple partners (AOR = 3.08; 95% CI, 1.95 to 4.87), and paying for sex (AOR = 3.65; 95% CI, 2.58 to 12.37). Similarly, among women, heavy alcohol consumption was associated with higher odds of unprotected sex (AOR = 3.28; 95% CI, 1.71 to 6.28), multiple partners (AOR = 3.05; 95% CI, 1.83 to 5.07), and selling sex (AOR = 8.50; 95% CI, 3.41 to 21.18). A dose-response relationship was seen between alcohol use and risky sexual behaviors, with moderate drinkers at lower risk than both problem and heavy drinkers.
Alcohol use is associated with multiple risks for HIV transmission among both men and women. The findings of this study underscore the need to integrate alcohol abuse and HIV prevention efforts in Botswana and elsewhere.
Alcohol use is associated with multiple risks for HIV transmission in men and women. The findings underscore the need to integrate alcohol abuse and HIV prevention efforts in Botswana and elsewhere.
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), is most commonly spread through unprotected sex with an infected partner. HIV enters the body through the lining of the sex organs, rectum, or mouth, and destroys immune system cells, leaving the infected person susceptible to other viruses and bacteria. Although HIV education and prevention campaigns emphasize the importance of safe sex in reducing HIV transmission, people continue to become infected by having unprotected sex (that is, not using a condom) with either a nonmonogamous partner or multiple sexual partners, or in situations where they are paying for or selling sex. Research in different populations suggested that heavy alcohol use is associated with risky sexual behaviors. This is because alcohol relaxes the brain and body, reduces inhibitions, and diminishes risk perception. Drinking alcohol may further increase the risk of becoming infected with HIV through its suppressive effects on the immune system.
Why Was This Study Done?
Alcohol abuse is widespread in sub-Saharan Africa where most HIV infections occur and has been associated with risky sexual behaviors. It may therefore be one of the most common, potentially modifiable HIV risk factors in this region. However, research to date has concentrated on the association between alcohol consumption and risky sex in people attending HIV-treatment clinics or recruited at beer halls, and these populations may not be representative of the general population of sub-Saharan Africa. In this study, the researchers have investigated the potential role of alcohol in perpetuating the HIV epidemic by undertaking a population-based study on alcohol use and high-risk sexual behaviors in Botswana. Nearly a quarter of adults are infected with HIV here, and alcohol abuse is also common, particularly in the townships.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers recruited a random cross-section of people from the five districts of Botswana with the highest number of HIV-infected individuals and interviewed all 1,268 participants using a questionnaire. This included general questions about the participants (for example, their age and marital status) and questions about alcohol use, sexual behavior, and knowledge of HIV. Overall, 31% of the men in the study and 17% of the women were heavy drinkers—more than 21 drinks/week for men, 14 for women; a drink is half a pint of beer or a glass of wine. Heavy alcohol use was associated with being male, being in an intergenerational relationship (at least 10 years age difference between partners; intergenerational sex facilitates the continued spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa), having had more education, and living with a sexual partner. Among men, those who drank heavily were three to four times more likely to have unprotected sex or multiple partners or to pay for sex than nondrinkers. Among women, there was a similar association between heavy drinking and having unprotected sex or multiple partners, and heavy drinkers were eight times as likely to sell sex as nondrinkers. For both men and women, the more they drank, the more likely they were to have risky sex. The study did not address behavior among same-sex partnerships.
What Do These Findings Mean?
This study indicates that heavy alcohol consumption is strongly and consistently associated with sexual risk behaviors in both men and women in Botswana. Because of the study design, it does not prove that heavy alcohol use is the cause of such behaviors but provides strong circumstantial evidence that this is the case. It is possible that these results may not apply to neighboring African countries—Botswana is unique in being relatively wealthy and in its government being strongly committed to tackling HIV. Nevertheless, taken together with the results of other studies, this research strongly argues for the need to deal with alcohol abuse within HIV prevention programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Strategies to do this could include education campaigns that target both alcohol use and HIV in schools and in social venues, including beer halls. But, stress the researchers, any strategy that is used must consider the cultural and social significance of alcohol use (in Botswana, alcohol use is a symbol of masculinity and high socioeconomic status) and must simultaneously tackle not only the overlap between alcohol use and risky sexual behavior but also the overlap between alcohol and other risk behaviors such as intergenerational sex.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030392.
US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases factsheet on HIV infection and AIDS
US Department of Health and Human Services information on AIDS
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information on HIV/AIDS
US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism patient information on alcohol and HIV/AIDS]
Aidsmap, information on HIV and AIDS provided by the charity NAM,which includes some information on HIV infections and alcohol
AVERT information on HIV and AIDS in Botswana