Picture: 123RF/LEO LINTANG
Picture: 123RF/LEO LINTANG

Thousands of gay men in Africa are likely to be dying from HIV-related illnesses every year due to homophobic laws that stifle their chances of being tested and treated, researchers behind a study published in The Lancet HIV journal on Monday say.

A study of the data of 45,000 gay men in 28 African countries including Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria found that only one in four living with HIV were taking medication.

Half had taken an HIV/AIDS test in the past 12 months and researchers said the low rates were due to anti-LGBT+ laws in many African countries, which promoted stigma and discrimination and neglected HIV/AIDS programmes targeting gay men.

“We found countries that had more repressive anti-LGBT laws or harsher penalties for same-sex relations had lower levels of HIV testing,” said Kate Mitchell, one of the researchers at Imperial College London who was involved in the study.

“Some of the studies suggested that this was due to stigma. More research is required to see whether, if these laws were repealed, more gay men would be tested and treated.”

According to the UN, about 470,000 people living with HIV in Africa still die every year because they cannot, or do not, get tested and gain access to treatment, accounting for more than 60% of all global HIV-related deaths.

While there are no official figures on the number of deaths of men who have sex with men (MSM), Mitchell said it would be fair to estimate that thousands of gay men who were unaware or unable to get medication were dying every year.

African countries have some of the world’s most prohibitive laws governing homosexuality. Same-sex relationships are considered taboo and sex between gay people is a crime across most of the continent, with punishment ranging from imprisonment to death.

A 2019 report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association found 32 African countries out of a total of 54 nations criminalise same-sex relations.

SA is the only African nation to legalise gay marriage. Gay rights groups say the laws promote homophobia across the continent and are used daily to persecute and discriminate against sexual minorities who face prejudice in getting jobs, renting housing or seeking medical care or education.

Hate crimes such as blackmail, extortion, physical and sexual assault are common — but most are too fearful to go to the police due to their sexual orientation, say rights groups.

“Globally, men who have sex with men are about 28 times more likely to be living with HIV than men in the general population, an inequality that is particularly apparent in sub-Saharan Africa, where the human rights of MSM are often violated,” the researchers said in the study.

“These attitudes also create barriers to implementing effective HIV research, policy and health programmes for MSM, through prohibition of activism and research, arbitrary arrests of healthcare providers, and disruption of services provided by community-based and nongovernmental organisations.”

LGBT+ rights campaigners in Kenya, where gay sex is punishable by up to 14 years in jail, said they were not surprised by the results of the study.

“It is true the law makes it very difficult for MSM to seek medical treatment. Many people fear they will be outed or face some kind of abuse or be shamed by insensitive medical practitioners,” said Andrew Maina, programme co-ordinator at Hivos.

“If these anti-gay laws are scrapped, there will be more openness, more advocacy and more awareness of the issue. Gay men living with HIV would be able to seek medical care knowing they will be treated with respect and dignity.”