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September 2022

Soc Sci Med. 1992 Dec; 35(12): 1457-68.

The anthropology of sexually transmitted disease in Liberia.

Green EC.

In sub-Saharan African countries where AIDS is established, HIV transmission is primarily by means of heterosexual intercourse. A major co-factor in such transmission is the presence of other, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Efforts to limit the heterosexual transmission of HIV in Africa must therefore address the high prevalence of other, standard STDs. The present study attempts to establish a preliminary information base for interventions to prevent the spread of HIV in Liberia where there is relatively high incidence of standard STDs but low incidence of HIV seropositivity. Employing in-depth, key-informant interviews with traditional healers, prostitutes and others, as well as focus group discussions with groups selected on the basis of several criteria, knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and behavior related to AIDS and STDs were elicited. Although evidence of exposure to scientific concepts was found, traditional, ethnomedical views predominated. Notions of sorcery, taboo violation and contamination were often expressed when describing the etiologies of locally-recognized sexually transmitted diseases. More 'naturalistic' explanations were often based on simplified notions of human anatomy and biochemistry. Three basic messages about AIDS that were broadcast in a recent radio campaign were retained, namely 'AIDS kills;' 'there is no cure for it;' and 'it is transmitted through sex.' There was also evidence of Liberians beginning to view AIDS in frameworks of interpretation compatible with traditional ethnomedical beliefs, such as sorcery. Most traditional healers reported they knew little or nothing about AIDS, including those who had a lot to say about other STDs that are well-established in Liberia. Many cases of STDs seem to be handled by traditional healers. Treatment typically consists of decoctions from the leaves and roots of various medicinal plants, administered as teas--less often as enemas or vaginal implants--to be taken over a 2-4 day period. It is recommended that efforts to lower incidence of standard STDs be given priority comparable to promotion of condom use and 'safer sex' in efforts to slow the transmission of HIV in Liberia. Strategies for combating STDs will have to take into account popular beliefs and attitudes regarding STDs as well as the role and influence of traditional healers. Strategies of this sort are recommended.

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