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Justine Sacco: Dangerous Truths and Dangerous Falsehoods about HIV


An American on her way to South Africa is said to have Tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” This is a heartless and insensitive remark to make. But what makes it most heartless and insensitive for a white American to say it is the fact that it is so true. In the US, African Americans accounted for 44% of all new HIV infections in 2010, despite representing only 12-14% of the population. Also in the US, men who have sex with men are said to represent about 4% of the population, but account for 63% of all new HIV infections in 2010, and a disproportionate number of them are black/African American.

Even in South Africa HIV prevalence among white people is very low. But national prevalence is amongst the highest in the world and there are more HIV positive people in South Africa than in any other country. While America has the worst HIV epidemic in the developed world, with over 1.1 million HIV positive people, the majority of infections arise among men who have sex with men and (to a lesser extent) intravenous drug users. HIV infection among white heterosexuals who have no serious risks, such as receptive anal sex or intravenous drug use, is very low.

The American who tweeted the first stupid, but sadly true, remark offended so many people that she arrived in South Africa to find that a storm had erupted on Twitter and she had lost her job. So, to make matters worse, she made a statement to a South African newspaper which contained a dangerous but often heard falsehood:

“For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

This is completely untrue, as the figures for the US show so clearly. About two thirds of people living with HIV globally are black Africans. An estimated 60% of HIV positive people in Africa are female, compared to only 20% of new infections in the US in 2010. Hispanics and Latinos in the US made up 21% of new infections in 2010; the rate of infection was 2.9 times higher in Latinos than it was in white males; it was also 4.2 times higher in Latinas than in white women.

HIV most definitely does discriminate by race, gender and sexual orientation. This is not a new discovery, either. It may be an acceptable thing to say in certain circles, but we should never forget the differences between HIV in Africa, where the majority of HIV positive people live, and HIV in developed countries, where HIV is less prevalent overall, and is rare among heterosexuals who have no serious risk behaviors.

Justine Sacco, who tweeted the remark, is so right to think that she is very unlikely to be infected with HIV; a lot less likely than a black African, and also less likely than a black or Latino/Latina American. It is disturbing to think that so many people continue to believe or say otherwise. Why is HIV prevalence so high among black Africans and black/African Americans, yet comparatively low among white people, especially white men who engage in no serious risk behaviors?

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