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Print Editions Thursday September 28th, 2023

Elizabeth Pfeiffer discusses HIV stigma in Western Kenya

Brown’s Africa Initiative organizes talk led by Rhode Island College professor

<p>Medical Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Elizabeth Pfeiffer spoke about her research HIV stigma in Africa at the Watson Institute Tuesday afternoon.</p>

Medical Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology Elizabeth Pfeiffer spoke about her research HIV stigma in Africa at the Watson Institute Tuesday afternoon.

On Tuesday afternoon, public health, anthropology, population studies and African studies scholars joined a presentation at the Watson Institute held by Elizabeth Pfeiffer, medical anthropologist and assistant professor of Anthropology at Rhode Island College. The event included an overview of the prevalence of HIV stigma in Kenya and was primarily focused on discussing Pfeiffer’s to-be-published book, “Viral Frictions: Global Health and the Persistence of HIV Stigma in Kenya.” 

For a decade, Pfeiffer conducted an ethnographic study in a suburban highway community in Western Kenya. The study explores how the stigma surrounding HIV persists even when effective treatments for HIV and AIDS already exist and are widely available. 

“Over the last decade, we have created amazing scientific technologies, and we have the capability … to treat ourselves out of the AIDS epidemic,” said Pfeiffer in her presentation, adding that stigma and discrimination still present barriers to ending the epidemic. “My provocative question that underpins my book is what would it really take to get to zero discimination of people who have HIV.”

“We were particularly happy for this event to invite a colleague from Rhode Island College and have her join the African Initiative and talk about her forthcoming book,” said Daniel Jordan Smith, professor of international studies and director of the African Initiative, a program created by the Watson Institute to draw more attention to and build a scholarly community around Africana Studies at Brown. 


To Smith, the most interesting aspect of the presentation was “the nexus between a health problem like HIV/AIDS and the way in which it’s tied to and connected to so many other aspects of culture and society,” he said. “To understand AIDS and stigma in Kenya, you have to widen your lens and think about society, culture, economy and politics.”

“We’re very eager to have students and campus community members know that we’re here and that we’re organizing and doing African programming, hoping that more students and community members will participate,” Smith said.

Pfeiffer’s research is concerned with how HIV medication factors into the stigma surrounding the virus. She added that “one of the reasons that HIV stigma persists in Kenya is because of complex processes of globalization.”

Her book starts with an overview of the history of HIV in Kenya. The first HIV diagnosis occurred in the early 1980s, but it was not until 1999 that the government declared it as a national disaster. But due to few initiatives in Kenya’s healthcare sector, the virus “spiralled out of control.” 

Pfeiffer’s methodology consisted of participant observations, a variety of interviews, conversations and collected media stories. She conducted her observations in a suburban area in Western Kenya. The location’s exact name is kept confidential, which she explained was possible due to location not being a significant influencing factor for prevalence and outcomes of HIV stigmatization. 

According to Pfeiffer, researchers are still grappling with whether HIV-related stigma and discrimination can be completely eliminated. 

“It was a very good talk on a very important topic,” Omar Galarraga, associate professor of health services policy and practice at the School of Public Health, told the Herald. “The issue of stigma in HIV is very much prevalent at many levels,” including when receiving HIV tests, positive results and treatment.

Galarraga said that attempts to hide HIV medications from others, including close family members, still frequently occur due to this stigma. “Many people would throw away the bottle, put the pills in a plastic bag and say ‘I’m taking this for (my) headache,’” he said.

Galarraga has studied HIV issues for decades. “We still have about 38 million people who have HIV (worldwide),” he said, adding that hundreds of thousands of people die annually of AIDS-related illnesses “because they don’t have access to treatment.”

“Most of the transmissions are still sexual transmissions through sexual contact,” he said. “In many sub-Saharan countries, including Kenya, you also have prenatal transmissions — from mother to child during labor and delivery and also through breastfeeding.”


Galarraga also emphasized the large amount of misinformation related to HIV transmission. “A lot of people think that it can be passed through casual touching, sharing utensils and cups and kissing — these are not true,” he said.

An important factor, Galarraga said, is safe sex practices, including the use of condoms. “As a society, we need to be more open and make sure that there is comprehensive sexuality education and that there are tools for protection,” Galarraga said.

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