The Fish Connection

April 16, 2012

I ran across an interesting article this week by Jamie Bechtel on the Huffington Postentitled, “Spread of HIV Linked to Fishery Collapse: Is Fair Trade Fish an Answer?”  While I don’t think that the AIDS crisis could be entirely solved by addressing the diminishing ability of developing-world fisherman to make a living, the article does raise some very valid and oft-overlooked points about the connection between HIV/AIDS and developing economies.

Ready to eat!

Ready to eat!

Ms. Bechtel speaks to the idea that when fishing communities cannot find fish, several factors come into play that promote the spread of HIV/AIDS.  First, fishermen must travel further afield for South Africa longer to find work online casino and income casino, leaving their family behind and making it more likely that they will expose themselves to the virus by starting a second family, engaging in extramarital affairs, or using drugs.  Second, women are often left without a livelihood and, in a place of desperation, end up in sexual relationships that expose them to the virus.  With less education and little earning potential outside of the fishing and food industry, maybe they consent to be married to an older man who has is already HIV+ or even resort to trading sex for food.

I’ve seen this dynamic play out firsthand in the Kenyan city of Kisumu, in the area on Lake Victoria cited by Ms. Bechtel.  It’s amazing how much more prevalent the virus is here than in areas like Nairobi or central Kenya.  The economy of Kisumu is entirely based on fishing, though, with most of the men historically being fisherman and most of the women either taking care of families or working in the fish processing, cooking, and shipping industries.  As catches from Lake Victoria have dropped dramatically, more and more people are forced into poverty.  Men get sick but won’t get tested, so they die much quicker than the women.  Cultural tradition dictates that widows are inherited as wives by male relatives of their deceased husband, so the virus spreads quickly as the women get treatment and outlive the men.  The article states, “fishermen are five times more likely to die of AIDS-related illnesses than farmers in the Lake Victoria region,” and I believe this discrepancy comes back to the industry decline and the increase in poverty among those who identify as fishermen.

Fishing boats on Lake Victoria in Kisumu

Fishing boats on Lake Victoria in Kisumu

Here in the States, the connection between economic hardship and HIV/AIDS prevalence is often missed.  When I tell people that I work with HIV/AIDS in Kenya, the response from other Americans is all too often something like, “well, you just can’t stop those Africans from having sex all the time.”  Many times I have to bite my tongue, but this lack of understanding is frustrating to me.  The AIDS crisis is complicated, and I believe the much higher prevalence rate in Kenya, compared to the United States, is due in much greater part to poverty and economic conditions than it is to reckless behavior or moral inferiority.

It’s only when you start to meet people and hear their stories, though, that the complexity of the issue becomes clear.  I’ve talked to the desperate, the poor – the victims.  The circumstances that led to their infection go far beyond health or promiscuity to the economy at large.  The fishing industry is part of it, but on a large scale I believe we will truly see these desperate stories end as economic activity, education levels, and standards of living rise.  This is why I get so excited to hear of good work being done to help countries like Kenya in the big picture – because every part is connected!

What do think of when you hear HIV/AIDS and Africa?  We would love to hear what first comes to mind – leave us a comment! 

For the full article, visit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jamie-bechtel/hiv-aids-overfishing_b_1418795.html

Follow Jamie Bechtel @Jamie_NEWCourse