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Sexual Abuse's Link to HIV

By Jackie Powder

“Having sex with me does not cure AIDS.” The Zambian billboard message, which features a young girl, acknowledges a dangerous myth in sub-Saharan Africa: Having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS.

It also offers a snapshot of the vulnerability of young Zambian girls.

The Applied Mental Health Research Group (AMHR)—a collaboration of Bloomberg School and Boston University researchers—is spearheading projects in Zambia to understand the overlap between child sexual abuse and HIV, and identify mental health service needs. AMHR, dedicated to implementing evidence-based mental health assessments and services in low-resource countries, includes Laura Murray, PhD, a Boston University assistant professor who oversees the efforts in Zambia, Paul Bolton, MBBS, MPH, a research associate at the Bloomberg School's Center for Refugee and Disaster Response, and Judith Bass, PhD '04, assistant professor of Mental Health.

A history of child sexual abuse may predispose individuals to engage in risky sexual behaviors, and studies show higher proportions of child sexual abuse among HIV-positive women than in the general population.

In Zambia, AMHR conducted a qualitative study of HIV-affected women and children in a high-poverty "compound" outside of Lusaka and found that 40 percent of the women reported sexual abuse or "defilement" as a problem for children.

The findings led to a collaboration with a child abuse clinic at Lusaka's University Teaching Hospital. Data from AMHR-developed intake and mental health evaluation forms will help clinic staff to better understand child abuse in the region.

"Treating child sex abuse needs to be studied as a preventive measure for HIV risk behavior," says Murray. "It's a neglected area that we could be working on much more aggressively," she says.