Conflict, wide-scale rape and mass displacement of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not necessarily lead to a higher rate of HIV/AIDS, the United Nations refugee agency said on Friday.
Contradicting a "common belief" of such a link, a new study by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that out of 12 refugee camps where HIV prevalence was surveyed, nine actually had a lower rate than surrounding host communities.
The study, led by Paul Spiegel of the UNHCR's Public Health and HIV section, looked at population data in the Democratic Republic of Congo, southern Sudan, Rwanda, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Burundi.
"Data from these countries did not show an increase in prevalence of HIV infection during periods of conflict, irrespective of prevalence when conflict began," said the study, which was published in British medical journal The Lancet.
"Although every occurrence of rape is abhorrent and could increase an individual's risk of contracting HIV infection, there are no data to show that wide-scale rape raised the overall prevalence of infection" in the seven countries surveyed, it added.
There is also no evidence that refugees exacerbate the HIV epidemic in host communities, the report said.
UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond stressed however that the findings did not mean the agency was taking a complacent attitude towards the problem.
"This does not mean that conflict in all countries would mean lower HIV infection than non-conflict countries... Nor should the findings be interpreted to mean we shouldn't worry about HIV or rape in conflict," he told journalists.
Mass killings, forced displacement and hiding from conflict can all lower the level of infections and consensual sexual encounters, and reduce social networks in which individuals might be exposed to HIV.
Moreover, most refugees tend to come from rural areas where HIV is lower than in urban areas, the report noted.
Spiegel and the other authors did stress the study's limitations, however, saying it was "restricted by the nature and quality of the work in displaced populations and countries affected by conflict."
More research is needed among people displaced by conflict and the host communities where they find refuge in order to fully explain the nature of HIV transmission in such environments, they concluded.