World Aids Day: Rape survivors at greater risk of HIV infection

A research study by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) shows that HIV negative women rape survivors have a greater risk of acquiring HIV for years after the rape.

This is due to the long-term negative impact of rape on survivors’ mental health and well-being, driven by structural and societal factors that may lead to increasing rape survivors’ vulnerability to contracting HIV.

The findings are contained in the Rape Impact Cohort Evaluation (RICE) study conducted by the SAMRC’s Gender and Health Research Unit (GHRU).

According to the council, the RICE study is based on women aged between 16 and 40, who sought care for rape in the Durban metro region from 2014 to 2019.

“The women were interviewed and had their HIV status assessed at regular intervals, and were followed up alongside a comparison group of women, who reported that they had never been raped.

“In total, the study enrolled 1 019 HIV negative women and found that among those who were raped, there was a 60% increased likelihood of contracting HIV, compared to women who had not been raped,” said the SAMRC

GHRU director and lead researcher, Professor Naeemah Abrahams, said the results were important for understanding what health care and support should be provided to women after rape.

“Our services have always focused on giving post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) to prevent HIV infections from the rape incident, but this is the first time we have shown with research that much more intensive support for survivors after rape is needed,” Abrahams said.

Abrahams said the RICE study is the first longitudinal cohort study globally to compare rape survivors and a control group of women to explore the relationship between rape and HIV over time.

Previous research conducted by Abrahams, including assessing research on the health impact of rape for the 2010 Global Burden of Disease study, has shown that worldwide, there is very little empirical research on the health impact of rape.

This is despite rape being a global problem, which affects countless women and girls, and men and boys and non-binary persons each year across the world.

Meanwhile, the SAMRC has led the way over three decades in deepening global understanding of the impact of gender-based violence on women’s HIV risk.

Executive Scientist for Research Strategy at the SAMRC, Professor Rachel Jewkes, believes that the study will chart the way for the National Department of Health to update its post-rape care policy and clinical management guidelines.

“This has been in abeyance for a decade and it is critical that we translate the latest research evidence including this new finding from the RICE study into better health services for rape survivors,” she said.

Meanwhile, SAMRC’s President and CEO, Professor Glenda Gray, has described the outcomes as advancing the evidence base for HIV prevention in South Africa.

“It confirms the value of investing in major research projects so that we can drive evidence-based health policy and practice,” Gray added.

World Aids Day

To mark World Aids Day today, the SAMRC will also be hosting a webinar on Rape and HIV titled, ‘Rape Survivors Need Comprehensive, Long-Term Support to Prevent HIV: Evidence from the rape impact cohort evaluation (RICE) study’.

This high-level panel discussion will include Professor Naeemah Abrahams; United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health’s Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng; World Health Organisation’s Lead on Violence against Women Dr Claudia Garcia-Moreno; the Department of Health’s Director of HIV Prevention Programmes’ Dr Thato Chidarikire and Acting Special Director of Public Prosecutions, Advocate Pierre Smith.

For years, the SAMRC has been at the forefront of cutting edge research and innovation to tackle the HIV epidemic in areas such as the prevention of HIV infection from mother-to-child, development of newer and safer drug regimens, and the health service delivery of antiretroviral treatment, to name a few.

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