a1 Yale School of Public Health, Division of Health Policy and Administration, Yale University, USA
Although health is generally believed to improve with higher wealth, research on HIV in sub-Saharan Africa has shown otherwise. Whereas researchers and advocates have frequently advanced poverty as a social determinant that can help to explain sub-Saharan Africa's disproportionate burden of HIV infection, recent evidence from population surveys suggests that HIV infection is higher among wealthier individuals. Furthermore, wealthier countries in Africa have experienced the fastest growing epidemics. Some researchers have theorized that inequality in wealth may be more important than absolute wealth in explaining why some countries have higher rates of infection and rapidly increasing epidemics. Studies taking a longitudinal approach have further suggested a dynamic process whereby wealth initially increases risk for HIV acquisition and later becomes protective. Prior studies, conducted exclusively at either the individual or the country level, have neither attempted to disentangle the effects of absolute and relative wealth on HIV infection nor to look simultaneously at different levels of analysis within countries at different stages in their epidemics. The current study used micro-, meso- and macro-level data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) across 170 regions within sixteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa to test the hypothesis that socioeconomic inequality, adjusted for absolute wealth, is associated with greater risk of HIV infection. These analyses reveal that inequality trumps wealth: living in a region with greater inequality in wealth was significantly associated with increased individual risk of HIV infection, net of absolute wealth. The findings also reveal a paradox that supports a dynamic interpretation of epidemic trends: in wealthier regions/countries, individuals with less wealth were more likely to be infected with HIV, whereas in poorer regions/countries, individuals with more wealth were more likely to be infected with HIV. These findings add additional nuance to existing literature on the relationship between HIV and socioeconomic status.
(Online publication January 04 2012)