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Press Release

November 12, 2008 
Overweight women in Africa more likely to have HIV infection

Calverton, MD – A new Macro International/MEASURE DHS study entitled HIV and Nutrition among Women in Sub-Saharan Africa challenges widely held beliefs about “slim disease,” as HIV was once called. In a study of women in 12 sub-Saharan African countries, authors found that in 10 countries, HIV infection is higher among overweight women than among underweight women. HIV prevalence is highest among underweight women only in Malawi.

These findings challenge conventional wisdom about who has HIV infection and who does not. A woman’s weight or body mass index (BMI) does not necessarily correspond to her HIV status, the study shows, debunking the widely believed myth that slim or underweight women may have the disease while healthier looking women are HIV-free.

In trying to explain these anomalies, the authors found that both HIV and BMI are associated with wealth and education levels. Wealthier, more highly-educated women are more likely to be HIV-positive, and also to be overweight. Once these confounding variables along with other socio-demographic characteristics are held constant, HIV prevalence is associated with being underweight.

As the study illustrates, it is impossible for anyone, even health care providers, to know a person’s HIV status based solely on his or her appearance. To help dispel dangerous myths, enhanced health communication efforts should promote safe sex practices, including the consistent use of condoms, and encourage everyone to get tested for HIV - regardless of how “healthy” people or their partners may look. This study also discusses complications associated with antiretroviral therapy among both underweight and overweight people.

The data for the study come from 12 nationally representative Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) conducted between 2003 and 2006 in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, and Zimbabwe.