Blood, sweat and semen: the economy of axé and the response of Afro-Brazilian religions to HIV and AIDS in Recife

Glob Public Health. 2011;6 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S257-70. doi: 10.1080/17441692.2011.604040. Epub 2011 Aug 10.


This article provides an ethnographic analysis of Afro-Brazilian religious responses to the HIV epidemic in Recife. Drawing on participant observation and in-depth interviews conducted with Afro-Brazilian religious leaders and public health officials, it highlights the importance of the axé--a mystical energy manipulated in religious rituals that is symbolically associated with blood, sweat and semen. In an analysis of the relationship formed between the state AIDS programme and Afro-Brazilian religious centres, we conclude that the recognition of native categories and their meanings is one of the key elements to a fruitful dialogue between public health programmes and religious leaders that in the case studied, resulted in the re-signification of cultural practices to prevent HIV. Although the Afro-Brazilian religious leaders interviewed tended to be more open about sexuality and condom promotion, stigma towards people living with HIV (PLHIV) was still present within the religious temples, yet appeared to be more centred upon the perception of HIV as negatively affecting followers' axé than judgement related to how one may have contracted the virus. We discuss the tensions between taking a more liberal and open stance on prevention, while also fostering attitudes that may stigmatise PLHIV, and make suggestions for improving the current Afro-Brazilian response to the epidemic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Black People
  • Brazil / epidemiology
  • Ceremonial Behavior*
  • Community Networks / organization & administration
  • Culture
  • Epidemics
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / economics
  • HIV Infections / ethnology*
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Public Health
  • Qualitative Research
  • Religion and Medicine*
  • Semen
  • Spirituality*
  • Stereotyping
  • Sweat
  • Vulnerable Populations