From general to specific: moving past the general population in the HIV response across sub-Saharan Africa

Keletso Makofane, Elise M. van der Elst, Jeffrey Walimbwa, Steave Nemande, Stefan D. Baral

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Introduction: As the HIV field evolves to better serve populations which are diverse in risk and access to services, it is crucial to understand and adapt the conceptual tools used to make sense of the HIV pandemic. In this commentary, we discuss the concept of general population. Using a synthetic and historical review, we reflect on the genesis and usage of the general population in HIV research and programme literature, pointing to its moral connotations and its impact on epidemiologic reasoning. Discussion: From the early days of the HIV pandemic, the category of general population has carried implicit normative meanings. General population represented those people considered to be undeserving of HIV acquisition, and therefore deserving of a response. Framing the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa as a generalized epidemic primarily affecting the general population has contributed to the exclusion of men who have sex with men from epidemic responses. The usage of this category has also masked heterogeneity among those it includes; the increasing focus on the use of interventions such as circumcision and HIV treatment as general population HIV prevention approaches has been marked by a lack of attention to heterogeneity among beneficiaries. Conclusions: We recommend that the term general population be retired from the field’s lexicon. HIV programmes should strengthen their capacity to describe the heterogeneity of those they serve and plan their interventions accordingly. To increase the efficiency and impact of the HIV response, it is urgent to stratify the category of general population by risk. Sexual networks are a promising basis for this stratification.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere25605
JournalJournal of the International AIDS Society
Issue numberS6
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020


  • Africa
  • HIV
  • LGBT persons
  • general population
  • key and vulnerable populations
  • men who have sex with men

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Infectious Diseases


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