Sex between young women and older men is no secret in South Africa. The name ‘blesser’ is commonly used to describe a man who may at first pay for a teenager’s bus fare to high school, then buy school supplies she cannot afford, and perhaps lunch at a decent café. Over time, the adolescent sleeps with her provider.
A genetic analysis now suggests how this social phenomenon plays into the cycle of HIV transmission in the country, which has the world’s largest HIV epidemic. By analysing the similarity of viral genetic sequences from nearly 1,600 people with HIV in one community in KwaZulu-Natal, the study shows that adolescent girls and women in their early 20s tend to pick up the virus from men aged around 30. When the women grow older, they go on to infect their long-term partners, who in turn may pass the virus on through affairs with younger women.