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Awareness and counseling are required to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in fishing communities such as this one in the Bondo district of West Kenya
Awareness and counseling are required to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in fishing communities such as this one in the Bondo district of West Kenya

The issue

Since the start of the AIDS epidemic, over 60 million people worldwide have been infected with the virus. Although little is known about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS specifically among fishers, the fisheries sector is particularly vulnerable because of the specific characteristics of fisheries such as long periods away from home, risky and hard work, and the circumstances to which fisherfolk are frequently exposed (e.g. drug use and unsafe sex).

The frequent travelling of fishers combined with easy access to commercial sex with multiple partners has led to a marked increase in rates of HIV infection among fishers. For instance, the rate of HIV/AIDS in fishing villages throughout the African Great Lakes region is believed to be consistently higher than in surrounding agricultural areas. Fishing communities in that area are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection because of their near neglect by the government and service sector, the high degree of mobility of fisherfolk and the lack of social cohesion in the fishing communities. Fisherfolk are also often highly exposed to diseases such as malaria and waterborne diseases which are co-factors of AIDS. 

HIV/AIDS can also affect fisheries households (both fisherfolk and aquaculturists) through: increased expenditures for drugs and medicines, reduced labour availability due to death and  chronic sickness of family members and some family members caring for the sick,  thus lowering household incomes and increasing poverty, and also through social exclusion within their communities.

However, on the positive side, initial data from a FAO study in the Mekong Delta in Viet Nam suggest that aquaculture development can contribute to a decrease in migration by poor young women from rural areas to urban centres by offering local opportunities to earn a living. The decreased urban migration could prevent women from being compelled into prostitution, thus reducing the risk of HIV/AIDS.

Possible solutions

In order to deal with prevention and mitigation of HIV/AIDS in the fisheries sector it should be recognized that cooperation with other sectors is required (e.g. health, education and agriculture). It is a complicated issue which cannot be handled by those working in the sector alone. Health workers are trained to assist in preventive measures but they need all help they can get from others. As HIV/AIDS is an issue that is closely linked with gender relationships, and particularly with equality aspects in the relationship, attention should be given to gender roles when dealing with HIV/AIDS issues.

Fishers can be particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS
Fishers can be particularly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS

To prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in the fishery sector it is considered important that Government staff and extension workers raise the issue whenever an opportunity arises. It is recommended that they should:

  • provide advice on what is HIV/AIDS, how do you get infected, and what can be done to prevent infection;
  • make people aware of the negative impact of HIV/AIDS on daily life (e.g. household incomes and food security);
  • discourage unsafe sex and the use of "narcotics" by fisherfolk and fish farmers. In this respect it is important to create awareness of the need to use condoms and clean/new needles;
  • encourage people to talk to health workers whenever an HIV/AIDS-related problem is suspected;
  • build awareness on the fact that HIV/AIDS is not contagious (e.g. HIV/AIDS is not transferred through shaking hands, coughing, hugging or using the same toilet);
  • developing loose peer-to-peer counselling networks with the help of sexual health workers (as has successfully been done for truck drivers and commercial sex workers).

Action taken

FAO, in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), has studied the importance of various foodstuffs in the daily diet of HIV/AIDS affected persons. It recognized that an adequately balanced diet should include all essential nutritional components and that fish is one of the most nutritious foods which can help HIV/AIDS affected persons to maintain healthy lives.

Fish (including freshwater and seafood products) is easy to digest, contains large quantities of high quality proteins and fats, is easy to prepare and is tasty. Moreover, fish contains 12 of the 15 most important vitamins and minerals for HIV/AIDS affected persons, such as:

  • vitamin A, which makes white blood cells and protects against infections associated with HIV progression;
  • thiamine (Vitamin B1), which is important for appetite and nervous system functions;
  • niacin (Vitamin B3) and Vitamin B6, which are important for the transformation of food into energy;
  • folate and vitamin B12, which are required for building and development of new cells;
  • calcium and magnesium, that help to build strong teeth and bones and assist heart and muscle functions;
  • iodine, which ensures the development and functioning of the brain and nervous system;
  • iron to assist in the transportation of oxygen to the blood, builds cells and eliminates old red blood cells;
  • selenium, which is important for the heart muscle, and zinc reinforces the immune system, facilitates digestion and transports vitamin A.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to spread, its impact on the expanding fisheries sector cannot be ignored
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to spread, its impact on the expanding fisheries sector cannot be ignored

FAO, committed to assist the rural sector in decreasing the impacts of HIV/AIDS, has embarked on framing a strategic response, which will be published soon.


As a livelihood activity, fishing has grown by over 35% since 1990 to 38 million people in 2002 who are engaged in full or part-time work in fishing.  Over 20% of these fishers work in the small-scale sector and earn less than 1USD per day. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to spread, its impact on the expanding fisheries sector cannot be ignored. HIV/AIDS will increasingly and negatively affect the livelihoods of fishing and aquaculture communities. In relation to the work carried out by FAO and others in the fisheries sector worldwide, it is recognized that HIV/AIDS causes negative impacts on the lives of men, women, and children through: reduced production and productivity levels, intensified gender inequality, weakened fisheries institutions, and intensified poverty and increased vulnerability of fishing communities. These were well-documented in recent studies examining the impact of HIV/AIDS on artisanal fisheries in Benin and Uganda.   

For those households and communities deriving a livelihood from fisheries and affected by HIV/AIDS, the issue is whether national and local governments will have the required capacity and capability to address this complicated situation in such a way that households and communities can sustain their livelihoods. The challenge is to avoid social exclusion of those affected and, through social safety-nets, minimize the trend where HIV/AIDS affected fisherfolk and aquaculturists are being pushed into poverty. This challenge cannot be addressed solely by the government; the international community and civil society can be valuable partners in initiating and implementing activities that support fishery-dependent communities in dealing with HIV/AIDS issues. A concerted effort must be made in order that these issues be addressed at all levels. 

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