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Wasting away: tackling HIV/AIDS in fishing communities

Fishing community at Kazinga, Uganda (James Brown)
Fishing community at Kazinga, Uganda
James Brown

The devastating effects of the HIV virus first became apparent in a fishing village on the Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria in the early 1980s. Known then only as the 'slim' disease, millions of people have since died from AIDS-related diseases in sub-Saharan Africa and it is estimated that a further 25 million are currently living with HIV/AIDS. The appearance of this devastating virus in a fishing community more than twenty years ago was not a chance occurrence; elevated rates of HIV prevalence are evident in many developing country fishing communities, with levels of infection among fisherfolk often five to ten times higher than in the general population.

In Africa, fishermen are among the most 'at risk' mobile occupational groups, with a higher level of HIV rates recorded than for truck drivers and miners. However, the vulnerability of fishing communities to HIV/AIDS has been widely overlooked in national and international fisheries policies, and in health guidelines. Prevention and mitigation programmes are few, and the lack of social structures and support for fishing communities means that they are unable to cope with the impact of AIDS. They are also least likely to benefit from anti-retroviral therapies.

Uganda is well known for tackling the issue of HIV/AIDS, and yet fishing villages remain a hotspot for high levels of HIV prevalence. National prevalence is now around 6-7 per cent - down from 18 per cent in the early 1990s - but fishermen are five times more likely than farmers to die of AIDS-related illnesses in the Lake Victoria region.

Predisposed to HIV/AIDS

Cleaning fish at the edge of Lake Kossou, Cote d'Ivoire
Cleaning fish at the edge of Lake Kossou, Cote d'Ivoire

The high prevalence of HIV rates in fishing communities stems from complex and often interacting factors. These include the mobility of fisherfolk, with many men and sometimes also women, typically processors, being based away from their family homes. As Dick Nyeko, Commissioner for Fisheries in Uganda, emphasises, "Fishing is perhaps the only business where money is made and lost on a 24 hour basis." In a culture of disposable income, there is often no tradition of saving money; money is earned and then spent - often on drink, drugs and casual sex. The harsh lifestyle of many fisherfolk, and their exposure to water-borne diseases, malaria, poor sanitation and poor nutrition, also increase susceptibility to infection.

The burden of dealing with those affected by AIDS-related illnesses puts additional stresses on fishing households, undermining efforts to accumulate assets or improve household security. And, "For communities with very high levels of AIDS deaths, like those around Lake Victoria, fatalism can also erode the commitment to long-term stewardship of fisheries resources," explains Benoit Horemans, coordinator of the Sustainable Fisheries Livelihood Programme in West Africa.

Fishing and its associated economic activities make crucial contributions to household incomes in many developing countries, as well as boosting food security and providing a healthy diet. The spread of HIV/AIDS is, however, undermining this vital food production system and impacting on local economies. And although aquaculture may be an alternative for HIV-affected households - the work is not physically demanding, fish are a nutritionally rich food source, and they can be used to generate cash to purchase other foods and medication - the majority of Africa's fisherfolk remain involved in inland or coastal fisheries.

Prevention, care and mitigation

Some initiatives have been instigated among fishing communities in some countries. In Namibia, workplace-based prevention measures have been established in seafood companies. In the Democratic Republic of Congo and Benin, peer group education has been successful in raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and in changing behaviour. Saving schemes have been established in Congo for vulnerable women and girls in fishing communities, to mitigate the need for casual sex and prostitution. In Tanzania and Congo, primary health services are now being provided to mobile and migrant fishers; and in Uganda, with assistance from The AIDS Support Agency (TASO), nutritional and positive support is being provided to orphans and people living with HIV/AIDS.

While these initiatives are important, they are small scale and unlikely to have a major impact given the scale of the epidemic across sub-Saharan Africa. Some government ministries are beginning to develop impact-reduction strategies for their fisheries sector, but these are still at a very early stage. If the problem of HIV/AIDS among fisherfolk is really to be addressed, much more needs to be done in terms of prevention in particular, and at all levels from within and between communities, fishery and health agencies, as well as international agencies and donors.

Date published: November 2005


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