Alexander Tsai and colleagues show that in sexually active women in Brazil severe food insecurity with hunger was positively associated with symptoms potentially indicative of sexually transmitted infection and with reduced odds of condom use.
Understanding how food insecurity among women gives rise to differential patterning in HIV risks is critical for policy and programming in resource-limited settings. This is particularly the case in Brazil, which has undergone successive changes in the gender and socio-geographic composition of its complex epidemic over the past three decades. We used data from a national survey of Brazilian women to estimate the relationship between food insecurity and HIV risk.
Methods and Findings
We used data on 12,684 sexually active women from a national survey conducted in Brazil in 2006–2007. Self-reported outcomes were (a) consistent condom use, defined as using a condom at each occasion of sexual intercourse in the previous 12 mo; (b) recent condom use, less stringently defined as using a condom with the most recent sexual partner; and (c) itchy vaginal discharge in the previous 30 d, possibly indicating presence of a sexually transmitted infection. The primary explanatory variable of interest was food insecurity, measured using the culturally adapted and validated Escala Brasiliera de Segurança Alimentar. In multivariable logistic regression models, severe food insecurity with hunger was associated with a reduced odds of consistent condom use in the past 12 mo (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 0.67; 95% CI, 0.48–0.92) and condom use at last sexual intercourse (AOR = 0.75; 95% CI, 0.57–0.98). Self-reported itchy vaginal discharge was associated with all categories of food insecurity (with AORs ranging from 1.46 to 1.94). In absolute terms, the effect sizes were large in magnitude across all outcomes. Underweight and/or lack of control in sexual relations did not appear to mediate the observed associations.
Severe food insecurity with hunger was associated with reduced odds of condom use and increased odds of itchy vaginal discharge, which is potentially indicative of sexually transmitted infection, among sexually active women in Brazil. Interventions targeting food insecurity may have beneficial implications for HIV prevention in resource-limited settings.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, more men than women were infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, but currently half of all HIV-positive adults are women. Most women become infected with HIV through unprotected sexual intercourse with an infected male partner. Biologically, women are twice as likely to become infected through unprotected heterosexual intercourse as men. Moreover, women are often unable to negotiate condom use because of unequal gender relations—men can insist on unprotected sexual intercourse in many relationships. Another factor often related to unequal gender relations that may shape women's risk of exposure to HIV is food insecurity—limited or uncertain access to enough nutritionally adequate and safe food for an active, healthy life. Recent studies done in sub-Saharan Africa suggest that food insecurity can affect women's engagement in risky sexual behaviors such as unprotected sex, transactional sex (sexual relationships that involve the giving of goods or services such as free lodgings), and commercial sex work.
Why Was This Study Done?
Policymakers planning HIV prevention strategies in resource-limited settings need to know whether food insecurity affects sexual risk taking among women. If it increases risk taking, then interventions that target food insecurity should improve the effectiveness of HIV prevention strategies. However, little is known about food insecurity and sexual risk taking outside sub-Saharan Africa. In this cross-sectional study (a study that characterizes a population at a single point in time), the researchers investigate whether food insecurity is associated with risky sexual behavior among sexually active women in Brazil, a country where the number of new heterosexually transmitted HIV infections among women is increasing. Condom promotion is the mainstay of Brazil's HIV prevention strategy, but less than half of the population reports the use of a condom whenever sexual intercourse occurs (consistent condom use) or at last sexual intercourse (recent condom use), and a greater proportion of men than women report condom use, possibly because of unequal power relations between men and women.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers obtained data on consistent condom use, recent condom use, and self-reported itchy vaginal discharge in the previous 30 days (used here as an indication that a woman may have a sexually transmitted infection) for 12,684 sexually active women from a national survey conducted in Brazil in 2006–2007. They then used multivariable logistic regression (a statistical method) to investigate the association between these outcomes and food insecurity, which was measured using the Escala Brasiliera de Insegurança Alimentar, an 18-item questionnaire that asks people to recall information about the quantity and quality of food available to them over the previous three months. Severe food insecurity with hunger (the most extreme category of food insecurity) was associated with an adjusted odds ratio (AOR) for consistent condom use of 0.67. That is, women who reported severe food insecurity were two-thirds as likely to use a condom whenever they had sexual intercourse as women who were food secure, after adjustment for other factors that might have affected condom use. The probability of consistent condom use was 15% among women who were food secure but only 10.5% among women who had the worst food security. Severe food insecurity with hunger was also associated with a reduced odds of recent condom use (AOR = 0.75), whereas all categories of food insecurity increased the odds of a recent itchy vaginal discharge.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that severe food insecurity with hunger is associated with reduced condom use and with increased occurrence of symptoms that may indicate sexually transmitted disease among sexually active women in Brazil. Because the study looked at women at only a single time point, these findings do not show that food insecurity causes risky sexual behavior. Moreover, these findings may not be generalizable to other settings, and they do not distinguish between regular condom use with a regular partner and regular condom use with casual partners. Also, although the researchers investigated two hypothesized explanations—lack of control in sexual relations and chronic energy deficiency—neither of these factors could explain why food insecurity is associated with risky sexual behavior. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that interventions that target sexual risk reduction behaviors are unlikely to be optimally effective if food insecurity is not taken into account, and, thus, the researchers conclude, HIV prevention strategies in Brazil should include interventions that target food insecurity.
Please access these web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001203.
Information is available from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on all aspects of HIV infection and AIDS
NAM/aidsmap provides basic information about HIV/AIDS, and summaries of recent research findings on HIV care and treatment (in several languages)
Information is available from Avert, an international AIDS charity on many aspects of HIV/AIDS, including detailed information on HIV and AIDS prevention, women, HIV, and AIDS, and HIV and AIDS in Brazil (in English and Spanish); personal stories of women living with HIV are available
HIV InSite provides comprehensive and up-to-date information on all aspects of HIV/AIDS from the University of California at San Francisco
Additional patient stories about living with HIV/AIDS are available through the charity website Healthtalkonline
A primer on food security from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations is available
Information about the 2006–2007 Brazilian national survey on health in women and children is available in Portuguese; a profile of food security in Brazil is also available (some information in English but mainly in Portuguese)