Don't Get Stuck With HIV

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Avoidable HIV Infection Ignored Because of Refusal to Accept Non-Sexual Transmission


Continuing the theme of my last post, but this time using the 2011 National Antenatal Sentinel HIV & Syphilis Prevalence Survey in South Africa, I again wonder why authors of such reports insist that HIV is almost always transmitted through ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior and fail to say anything about non-sexual modes of transmission.

Disturbingly, the authors note that the “the 2011 report has shown beyond reasonable doubt that there is no significant correlation between HIV and Treponema palladium, the etiological agent for active syphilis, as co-factor for HIV infection.In the 2012 survey we have started to pilot monitoring of Herpes type 2, HHV2, which usually causes genital herpes and is transmitted primarily by direct contact with sores, most often during sexual contact.” This sentiment is echoed on three further occasions in the document.

Rather than suspecting that HIV may sometimes be transmitted through non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare, unsafe cosmetic practices or unsafe traditional practices, they are looking for another sexually transmitted infection to ‘correlate’ with HIV. Why? Or, better still, why not investigate non-sexual routes? There’s plenty of evidence.

South Africa is not the only country to survey syphilis prevalence along with HIV prevalence. Uganda and Zambia also do so, with similar results. Below are radar graphs for all three countries, showing that if syphilis is a proxy for unsafe sexual behavior, HIV does not resemble syphilis very much. This is no surprise, but data continues to be collected and analyzed, before concluding that there is little or no correlation.

South Africa

HIV and Syphilis in South Africa

Uganda

HIV and Syphilis in Uganda

Zambia

HIV and Syphilis in Zambia

How many more years are to be wasted pretending that HIV is almost always transmitted through sexual behavior in high HIV prevalence African countries, but nowhere else? People in high HIV prevalence countries need to be made aware of the non-sexual risks they face. Health facilities, cosmetic facilities and other sites where HIV may be transmitted through contaminated blood or other bodily fluids also need to be made safer. Failing to address lack of knowledge and unsafe non-sexual practices results in an as yet unestimated number of people becoming infected with HIV; these infections are all avoidable.

South African National HIV Survey Betrays Those Facing Non-Sexual Risks


The latest South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012 was released recently. Much of the media coverage concentrated on things like the worrying increase in HIV prevalence compared to the last survey, which was carried out in 2008, said to be the combined result of new infections and a big increase in the number of people living longer with HIV as a result of being on antiretroviral therapy.

The report is a useful document, as far as it goes. But there isn’t even a hint that several non-sexual modes of HIV transmission could be contributing to the worst HIV epidemic in the world (in terms of number of people living with HIV, 6.4 million). This is a lot more worrying than the increase in prevalence, because failing to address non-sexual modes of transmission will result in people continuing to be infected through unsafe healthcare, unsafe cosmetic practices and unsafe traditional practices.

Underlining the clear assumption that almost all HIV transmission is a result of unsafe sexual behavior, there is a lot of attention paid to mass male circumcision programs. These are not going so well in South Africa because the majority of circumcised people chose this as a tribal rite, not because they had been hoodwinked into believing that it would save them from various diseases, HIV just being one of them. But the report fails to stress that this means most circumcised males in South Africa faced a far higher risk of being infected with a number of diseases by being circumcised in unsterile conditions.

The report also agonizes over the usual ‘behavioral determinants of HIV’, such as early sexual debut (a minority of males and females become sexually active at a young age, the vast majority don’t), ‘intergenerational’ sex (a minority, about a fifth of females do, most males don’t and this issue has been questioned recently), multiple sexual partners (also a minority do this, more males than females, although HIV prevalence is far higher among females) and condom use (increasing, but probably too low to have much impact on transmission).

However, simply ignoring the possible significance of how people respond to questions is the most arrogant, and probably the most dangerous aspect of the report. There is a list of reasons people gave for believing they would not contract HIV and a few from this list were cited in the media, triumphantly, because some people who thought they would not contract the virus were already infected. Here’s the list, with the number of people giving the response and the percentage:

Reasons for belief one would not contract HIV – number and % of cases

I have never had sex before 21,150, 11.0
I abstain from sex 21,147, 21.3
I am faithful to my partner 21,144, 32.0
I trust my partner 21,149, 22.5
I use condoms 21,146, 19.2
I know my HIV status 21,136, 9.8
I know the status of my partner 21,134, 4.4
I do not have sex with sex workers/prostitutes 21,112, 1.7
My ancestors protect me 21,070, 1.1
God protects me 21,142, 2.5
I am not at risk for HIV 21,151, 8.9
Other 21,142, 10.4

Do those carrying out the survey never, for one moment, suspect that some people might be telling the truth? Some people who have never had sex before are being told for the first time that they are HIV positive, and that it’s almost certain they were infected through some kind of unsafe sex. What efforts are made to find out how they were infected? What about those who are faithful to their partner? Is their partner tested?

The authors of the report seem to relish the term ‘evidence-based’ when referring to various different ‘interventions’ that are expected to reduce HIV transmission; when these interventions appear to fail, those who become infected, or who give inconvenient answers to survey questions, are blamed for their ‘sexual behavior’. If the researchers don’t even check how people become infected, in what way are the interventions evidence-based? If people are not believed when the answers don’t suit the researchers, why should we accept other parts of the report where the answers are in line with what the researchers expect to hear?

Assuming that HIV is almost always transmitted through ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, regardless of all the indications that it is also transmitted through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic or traditional practices, is a betrayal of HIV positive people; it is also a betrayal of those who still risk becoming infected through such routes. These non-sexual routes urgently need to be addressed by investigating and cleaning up health centers, salons and other potential locations, and by warning patients about the dangers of being exposed to the blood and bodily fluids of other people.

Keep HIV Prevalence Low in Burundi with Safe, Accessible Healthcare


A recent newspaper article on Burundi refers to the country’s failure to achieve a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to get “HIV prevalence to zero by 2015″. This is not an MDG and is a confusion with one of UNAIDS’ slogans, which goes ‘zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination’.

The journalist continues “One of the reasons for this [failure] is an unequal access to quality healthcare and prevention services for high-risk groups in Burundi.” One of the consequences of UNAIDS’ insistance that HIV is almost always transmitted through ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior in African countries (but not in non-African countries) is that no one in high prevalence countries wants to be associated with efforts to reduce transmission amongst those who seem to be most likely to be infected and to infect others.

Sex education in schools is almost non-existant, or it’s provided by religious groups whose aim can be to misinform rather than enlighten; sex work is illegal in many African countries; male to male sex is illegal and carries risks that go beyond HIV; harm reduction programs to reduce transmission among intravenous drug users by supplying them with safe injection equipment and other facilities is a political hot potato, with many donors actively discouraging it because it ‘encourages drug use’, etc.

But quality healthcare is denied to the majority of Burundians, not just those who fall into one of UNAIDS’ numerous ‘most at risk’ groups. Indeed, those who have had the best access to healthcare may also be more likely to be HIV positive – urban dwelling, wealthy people with higher levels of education.

Burundi is a very poor country, with the lowest expenditure on health in East Africa, but also the lowest HIV prevalence. At 1.4%, prevalence is only a fraction of that of Swaziland, where the majority of poor, rural dwelling, poorly educated women give birth with the assistance of a skilled healthcare worker. Only around 30% of Burundians from similar backgrounds do so.

The article gives the impression that poverty in some way causes HIV and sex work, because poor people have no option but to have sex for money or food or other benefits, as if poverty were something quite neutral in the absence of HIV and sex work. But poverty may also increase HIV transmission by exposing people to unsafe healthcare, or to the absence of healthcare.

If unsafe healthcare is the only option, people may risk infection with very serious illnesses in health facilities. Yet avoiding them altogether means they risk many other serious illnesses. Those engaging in sex work face terrible occupational risk, but if healthcare facilities are also unsafe, their non-sexual risk for HIV and other diseases may also be increased.

No one working in development would argue that poverty is unimportant, but it doesn’t play exactly the role in HIV transmission claimed by UNAIDS and the HIV industry in general. Poverty denies people access to healthcare altogether, or it condemns them to risking unsafe healthcare. So poverty reduction and greater access to healthcare needs to mean safe healthcare, otherwise access to healthcare and poverty reduction may be dangerously counterproductive.

UNAIDS’ 3 Ones: One Disease, One Theory, One Solution


According to Avert.com “more than $400 million [of donor funding] was committed to HIV and AIDS in 2007/2008“. However, less than a quarter of that funding, probably around 20%, was spent on ‘prevention’, with the usual assumption that almost all HIV is transmitted through heterosexual behavior. Around 60% is estimated to have been spent on treatment and care, say around $240 million.

It’s tremendous that a lot of money is being spent on treating and caring for people who have been infected with HIV. Not all HIV positive people are currently eligible for treatment. Perhaps UNAIDS’ claim that 60% of those who are eligible were on treatment at some time, although the figure, however many hundreds of thousands it may be, does not discount those who have died or who have been otherwise lost to follow up.

Around 95% of Tanzanian people are HIV negative. Out of the 1,470,000 people who are living with HIV, between one and two thirds may be on treatment. That’s 1-2% of Tanzanian people, at the most. So how do those who control the money decide how to spend the approximately $80 million in order to reduce transmission of HIV; what kind of prevention activities should be prioritized among those 46,300,000 Tanzanians who are still uninfected?

UNAIDS has a slogan (aside from their ‘three ones’ slogan alluded to in the title above) that goes ‘know your epidemic – know your response’. This makes it sound like UNAIDS believes that there are different epidemics in each country, and perhaps even different subepidemics within each country. But their response is always to treat HIV epidemics in Africa as if they are all virtually the same, although they may vary in intensity: but they are all assumed to be ‘driven’ by heterosexual behavior.

It’s not very clear how far $1.70 per head can go towards ‘changing people’s sexual behavior’, but that hasn’t stopped UNAIDS and other big players in the HIV industry (and some of them are very big players indeed) from trying. Billions have been spent on wagging fingers at rooms full of adults and children over the almost 20 years of UNAIDS’ existence.

Luckily there are a few things that can be done to help establish that HIV is probably not entirely heterosexually transmitted and that most finger-wagging exercises are a complete waste of money (their inherent paternalism is probably not considered to be a disadvantage; perhaps neither is their clearly demonstrated ineffectiveness).

For example, in Tanzania (and most other countries) there are only a few places where HIV prevalence is really high. Here’s a list of prevalence by region (the five with the lowest prevalence are the Zanzibar archipelago):

Njombe 14.8
Iringa 9.1
Mbeya 9
Shinyanga 7.4
Ruvuma 7
Dar es Salaam 6.9
Rukwa 6.2
Katavi 5.9
Pwani 5.9
Tabora 5.1
Kagera 4.8
Geita 4.7
Mara 4.5
Mwanza 4.2
Mtwara 4.1
Kilimanjaro 3.8
Morogoro 3.8
Simiyu 3.6
Kigoma 3.4
Singida 3.3
Arusha 3.2
Dodoma 2.9
Lindi 2.9
Tanga 2.4
Manyara 1.5
Mjini Magharibi 1.4
Kusini Unguja 0.5
Kusini Pemba 0.4
Kaskazini Pemba 0.3
Kaskazini Unguja 0.1

And there are further generalizations that can be made about HIV in Tanzania. Prevalence tends to be higher among females, urban dwellers, wealthier people, people with higher levels of education and employed people. It tends to be lower among men, rural dwellers, poorer people, people with lower levels of education and unemployed people.

UNAIDS tends to ‘analyze’ these features, which are shared by all high HIV prevalence countries, and conclude that wealthier, urban dwellers with jobs have bigger ‘sexual networks’ (etc) as if every person with HIV must have a ‘sexual network’ (etc). But there are other figures they could avail of when they are in an analytical frame of mind.

For example, while women are said to be more susceptible to HIV infection for various biological reasons, wealthier, urban dwelling, better edcated women with a job are also much more likely to attend ante natal clinics (ANC) and seek the assistance of some kind of trained health professional when they are giving birth.

Now, you might expect women who attend ANCs and have assisted deliveries to be less likely to be infected with HIV, but you’d be wrong. In many instances they are more likely to be infected, sometimes a lot more likely. Indeed, some countries with the highest HIV prevalence figures also have the highest ANC and attended birth figures, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, for example. The contrary tends to be true of low prevalence countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is not to say that HIV is never transmitted through heterosexual sex, or that it is always transmitted through unsafe healthcare (even among women). It’s just a clear indication that we need to know exactly what contribution heterosexual behavior makes to epidemics, and what contribution may be made by non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare, cosmetic care and perhaps other practices.

The whole concept of a UN agency set up to ‘fight’ one disease is bad enough. But it’s a whole lot worse if they and the rest of the industry continue to squander precious resources on poorly targeted and ineffective interventions. Resources need to be spent on health, defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (there’s no irony intended in citing WHO here).

Apparently one third of all aid in Tanzania is being spent on HIV, which leaves the other two thirds to be spent on other development areas. So perhaps some of that will eventually be used to address the many poorer, less well educated, jobless people living in rural areas with virtually no infrastructure or social services, but who are HIV negative. They will likely remain negative if even a fraction of available donor funding is spent on working out the relative contribution of unsafe healthcare to the worst HIV epidemics in the world and addressing this issue, however belatedly.

Intergenerational Sex and Marriage: Just Another HIV Myth?


In 2007 the Population Council published an article on early marriage and HIV in Kenya. There’s nothing surprising about a eugenicist or ‘population’ NGO taking a close interest in such matters, of course, and the Population Reference Bureau published an article about cross-generational sex in various Africa countries in the same year. Both articles express concern about these phenomena potentially posing a risk for HIV transmission.

What is surprising is the figures used by the Population Council, listed below. The province where early marriage is most common, Northeastern, is the province where HIV prevalence is lowest, by a long shot. Early marriage is also less common in Nairobi, where HIV prevalence is second highest in the country. Where HIV prevalence is highest, Nyanza, early marriage is not particularly common. At least, there is no noticeable correlation between the phenomenon and HIV prevalence.

% married by 18 years HIV prev 08-09*
Northeastern 56 0.9
Eastern 16 3.5
Coast 34 4.2
Central 15 4.6
Rift Valley 35 4.7
Western 32 6.6
Nairobi 12 7
Nyanza 34 13.9

The relevant table is 14.5, page 217

In fact, these NGOs should have been very suspicious. HIV prevalence often tends to be higher among wealthier, better educated, urban dwelling, employed people, whereas intergenerational sex and marriage may be more closely associated with poorer, less well educated, rural dwelling, unemployed people.

So it is significant that AidsMap reported a presentation at the 21st Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI). This presentation suggests that “Sex with older men is not placing women under 30 at higher risk of HIV infection in rural South Africa, and relationships with older men may even be protecting women over 30 from infection“.

The author of the study suggests that programs addressing relationships between older men and younger women may even stigmatize men and women in such relationships. But stigmatizing people with, or thought to be at risk of, HIV is something NGOs and international health institutions have never shied away from.

The media will be disappointed because they have enjoyed years of talking about sugar daddies and sugar mummies, which fits into the ‘all men are bastards, all women are victims’ paradigm of HIV transmission, and their concomitant assumptions that African men will do anything for sex and African women will do anything for money.

Many population (and eugenicist) NGOs generally also claim an interest in ‘reproductive health’, but their agenda often seems to veer towards matters that have little to do with health, and activities that have little to do with human rights. But for those that really are interested in health, there is another set of figures they may be interested in.

HIV prev 08-09 Medical supplies for common delivery complications
Northeastern 0.9 52
Eastern 3.5 61
Coast 4.2 59
Central 4.6 77
Rift Valley 4.7 49
Western 6.6 38
Nairobi 7 81
Nyanza 13.9 25

The Service Provision Assessment for Kenya for 2010 (Table 6.7, page 136) finds that only 25% of health facilities in Nyanza Province have essential supplies for common complications relating to child delivery, which means 75% of facilities lack “Needle and syringes, intravenous solution with infusion set, injectable oxytocic, and suture material and needle holder all located in delivery room area; oral antibiotic (cotrimoxazole or amoxicillin) located in pharmacy or delivery room area”.

With the highest HIV prevalence in Kenya, the fact that 46% of hospitals in Nyanza do not have all essential supplies for delivery, which refers to “Scissors or blade, cord clamp, suction apparatus, antibiotic eye ointment for newborn, skin disinfectant”, the Population Council and Population Reference Bureau may like to take a look at unsafe healthcare, now that intergenerational sex and marriage seem so much less of a priority now.

Again, these NGOs should also have noticed something important about HIV prevalence often being more closely associated with wealthier, better educated, employed, urban dwelling people: access to health facilities is also generally far higher among these groups. When poorer people with less education, those without formal employment and those who live in isolated rural areas do have access to health facilities, those facilities may turn out to be pretty unsafe. But that’s a matter for research that these NGOs haven’t yet carried out (or perhaps they just haven’t published it).

Ever-eager to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, those who subscribe to the (eugenicist) population control theory of development in Africa, whether covertly or overtly, continue to receive generous funding. They don’t wish to lose any ground when it comes to pandering to the prejudices of those who still believe that Africans have loads of unsafe sex, and that this is why HIV prevalence is so much higher there. Yet, funding for unsafe healthcare always seems to put donors off their morning read, which is evidently when they set their funding priorities.

HIV Strategy: Blaming the Victim and their Individual Behavior


Since the early days of HIV/AIDS, finger pointing has been the main publicity angle. In Western countries the collective finger was pointed at men who have sex with men. Their reaction was to object to the finger being pointed at them and to insist that everyone is equally at risk. Though some still believe that everyone is equally at risk, it is not true. In Western countries the majority of HIV transmissions have always been among men who have sex with men, with a smaller proportion of transmissions through intravenous drug use.

But things are quite different in developing countries, particularly high HIV prevalence African countries. In high HIV prevalence countries men who have sex with men, intravenous drug users and even sex workers contribute a relatively small proportion of HIV transmissions. In fact, the largest contribution still appears to come from those with little or no risk; mainly monogamous heterosexuals. So the process of finger pointing often turns into one of victim blaming. After all, you can’t point the finger at everyone around you, nor at someone who is HIV negative; so the clearest ‘evidence’ of unsafe sexual behavior becomes HIV positive status.

This gives rise to the task of explaining how a virus that is difficult to transmit through heterosexual sex outside of Africa is so frequently transmitted through that route in Africa. The HIV industry needed to show that ‘Africans’ must be promiscuous, ignorant and unhygienic. This wasn’t too difficult because population control advocates (the word ‘eugenics’ is no longer fashionable), a significant proportion of wealthy NGOs operating in Africa, had had been playing the over-sexed, under-educated slum-dweller cards for decades.

The processes of pointing the finger at a particular group whose behavior was disapproved of, blaming those infected with HIV for their status, and concluding that HIV is all a matter of individual behavior, threw off course any efforts to reduce HIV transmission in developing countries. Although ‘prevention’ activities only receive a small proportion of HIV funding, that is still a massive amount of money. But prevention activities have rarely gone beyond exhortations to ‘behave’ in a particular way. The finger-wagging programs perfected by population control NGOs decades before HIV was identified became, and often remain, the state of the art of HIV prevention.

There has been plenty of research showing that these finger-wagging programs are of little or no benefit (except to the NGOs). An example of such research shows that “peer education programs in developing countries are moderately effective at improving behavioral outcomes, but show no significant impact on biological outcomes“. There is a voluminous body of literature showing that you can’t simply wag your finger at people and expect them to change their behavior, whether the aim is to address substance abuse, dangerous driving, over-eating or anything else.

Sometimes the association of HIV transmission with individual behavior is further connected with conditions that are beyond the control of the victim, for example, poverty. But this has also given rise to confusion: there is plenty of evidence that HIV in African countries is transmitted among wealthier people. This challenges the idea that HIV epidemics are driven by sexual behavior because, even if wealthy people ‘can afford to have a lot of sex and a lot of partners’, as the HIV industry would have it, there would need to be some poor people involved in this theory. Rich people don’t pay other rich people for sex.

Instead of looking beyond sex, or sex and poverty, it seems some researchers are convinced they will eventually find out how sex and economic inequalities ‘drive’ HIV epidemics. One paper concludes that “Further work is needed to understand the mechanisms explaining the concentration of HIV/AIDS among wealthier individuals and urban residents in [sub-Saharan Africa]“. But they don’t seem to consider the possibility that their protohypothesis about sex is simply wrong. They don’t seem to think that non-sexual transmission may be a very significant factor in the spread of HIV among wealthier people.

HIV can be transmitted through unsafe healthcare and other skin-piercing processes, such as various cosmetic processes. Wealthy people tend to have better access to healthcare. In fact, urban dwellers also tend to have better access to healthcare. Perhaps this is why the above paper found that HIV is “generally concentrated among wealthier men and women“. This may also explain why HIV “was concentrated among the poor in urban areas but among wealthier adults in rural areas” in a number of countries.

Instead of trying so hard (and failing, over and over again) to find out what it is about the sexual behavior of wealthy people and urban dwellers, perhaps researchers should look at non-sexual risks, as well as sexual risks. Could the risks that people face be determined by their wealth and environment, precisely because they are not sexual risks, but healthcare and other risks? These risks are clearly not *individual* risks. They relate to health-seeking behavior, but it is not the behavior of wealthy and/or urban-dwelling people that gives rise to infection with HIV in a hospital or salon; the risk of infection depends on whether the facility is safe or not (which might vary considerably over time).

Some historians of HIV, such as Jacques Pepin (The Origins of Aids), admit that HIV was mainly transmitted through unsafe healthcare for many decades, and hardly ever through sexual behavior. But they don’t explain how healthcare transmission magically disappeared in the 1980s even though conditions in many African countries remain very unsafe (although how unsafe they are is still a dangerously under-researched field).

Coupled with the magical disappearance of the risk of HIV transmission in under-equipped, under-staffed and badly run health facilities is the magical re-appearance of the promiscuous, ignorant and dirty African, though for many, this had never really gone away. Pepin vaguely mentions things like ‘urbanization’ as the main explanation for levels of promiscuity for which there has never been any evidence and which do not explain very high rates of heterosexual transmission of HIV anyway.

Ugandans have recently responded to having the finger pointed at them by allowing an ‘anti-homosexuality’ bill to be passed, effectively saying ‘it’s not us, it’s them’. Various human rights groups, and even some donors, may belatedly object to such disgusting measures, which are being copied by other African countries. But the objection needs to be directed at the approach to HIV that began a long time ago, and began in Western countries, not in African countries. Men who have sex with men are by no means the only group who have been blamed for HIV epidemics. Other groups include long distance drivers, sex workers, house girls, fishermen, miners, and many others. It’s this finger-pointing approach that gives rise to the stigma that those pointing the finger claim to abhor.

Thirty years into the HIV epidemic (I’m adopting the view that HIV is not a pandemic because most people don’t face any risk of being infected and prevalence is, and will remain, low in most countries) research institutions, NGOs, international bodies and, perhaps most importantly, donors are still obsessing about sexual behavior and pretending that HIV status is up to the individual when it is clear that a large, but as yet unestimated, proportion of infections is a result of unsafe healthcare and other skin-piercing processes.

UNAIDS’ Dubious Claims about HIV/AIDS 2013


UNAIDS risk missing their target of reducing “sexual transmission of HIV by 50% by 2015“. But there is a way of meeting that target, and they could meet it by tomorrow. If they belatedly admit that HIV is far more easily transmitted through unsafe healthcare, they could begin to estimate the contribution of things like reuse of needles, syringes and other equipment that comes into contact with blood and other bodily fluids.

This would also greatly assist their progress towards their ‘ZeroDiscrimination’ target too, because even though they can’t reverse the damage they have done by insisting that Africans are irremediably promiscuous, the status of this claim as institutionalized racism will eventually become clear, at least to those who are prepared to think the issue through a little (a surprisingly small number of people so far).

After all, reducing ‘sexual transmission’ is one of their stated goals, whereas UNAIDS has barely breathed a word about transmission through unsafe healthcare in their 20 year, multibillion dollar, celebrity studded reign. They could just quietly (imperceptibly, even) reveal some changes in the way figures are collected and next December 1, a re-estimation of non-sexual transmission of HIV could be the subject most deserving of their customary (spontaneous) standing ovation module.

UNAIDS are uncharacteristically frank about mass male circumcision, which is something of an embarrassing fiasco: “As of December 2012, 3.2 million African men had been circumcised [...]. The cumulative number of men circumcised almost doubled in 2012, rising from 1.5 million as of December 2011. Still, it is clear that reaching the estimated target number of 20 million in 2015 will require a dramatic acceleration.” (They don’t say how many of the 3.2 million circumcised over quite a few years would have been circumcised anyway but took advantage of the free (anesthetized) operation.) Might this spell an unobtrusive retreat from this dangerous imperialist program?

But one of the heftiest pieces of bullshit in the ‘report’ (and there is stiff competition) is about “the goal of providing antiretroviral therapy to 15 million people by 2015″. They say that “As of December 2012, an estimated 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries were receiving antiretroviral therapy, an increase of 1.6 million over 2011. That brings the world nearly two-thirds of the way towards the 2015 target of 15 million people accessing antiretroviral treatment.”

The difference between UNAIDS’ claim and the truth is expressed in a few words, such as ‘were receiving’ therapy. If they said that 9.7 million people had been recruited on to a therapy program, that might have been true (or somewhat closer to the truth). But 9.7 million is, at best, the number of people who have at one time been put on a program. Neither UNAIDS, WHO, PEPFAR, CDC nor anyone else knows how many of those 9.7 million ever took the drugs, or for how long, how many dropped out of the program, how many were recruited on to two or more programs or simply died, etc.

No one knows, and no one really cares because 9.7 million is an impressive figure, and it sounds like a good attempt at the 15 million target. There is not much incentive to estimate how many people are alive and on antiretroviral treatment, indeed, such an estimate could prove fatal to several substantial institutions (not just UNAIDS, which seems to thrive on failure to achieve anything at all, aside from spending money and institutionalizing bigotry). Is the true figure 8 million people, 7 million, or some far lower number? Billions of dollars say that no one is going to ask this impertinent question (unless they are not in receipt of any of those billions, and never will be).

Unsafe healthcare does exist in extremely poor, high HIV prevalence countries, surprising as that may seem to those who are used to the mainstream view that HIV is hardly ever transmitted through heterosexual sex in every country in the world, but almost always transmitted through heterosexual sex in a handful of African countries. What contribution does unsafe healthcare make to the worst HIV epidemics in the world, all in sub-Saharan Africa? Would it be the one or two percent UNAIDS grudgingly suggests, or something far higher? We don’t know yet. No billions have been offered for the answer to this question.

Using cumulative figures is great, because you get that great ‘step’ effect when you produce bar graphs, and there is nothing like comforting, progressive steps to convince people that everything is good in UNAIDSland, and in the HIV industry in general. A very achievable 2015 target would be the abolition of UNAIDS and the promotion of safe healthcare. Because unsafe healthcare risks the spread of HIV, something UNAIDS has never got around to accepting. But I suspect that instead, there will be a continuation of the finger-pointing and victim-blaming that has characterized the mainstream approach to HIV in high prevalence countries so far.

More MDG Scapegoats: Industrial Disputes and Gay People


Another Millennium Development Goal (MDG) scapegoat. It sounds like bloody cheek to suggest that Kenya’s failure to reduce new HIV infections as quickly as predicted is a result of health personnel strikes. True, there have been strikes, but the country’s health services were decimated years ago by the strictures of international financial institutions and sheer neglect, and allowed to rot. Successive governments have also done an appalling job when it comes to industrial relations.

According to the article, Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) coverage “fell by 20 percent in 2011-2012″, from 66% to 53%, representing 13,000 children newly infected with HIV. The 2015 target is close to 100% but, at 38%, Kenya seems unlikely to reach it, and the same could be said for most other African countries. However, there is nothing to back up the ridiculous claim that strikes played a significant part in such a massive fall in coverage.

The article does state that “Experts agree on the main reason behind the reduction in PMTCP – disruptions in the health services”, but that’s hardly a smoking gun. There have been numerous antiretroviral drug stockouts and other disruptions, for various reasons, and these may have a lot more to do with such a large drop in coverage.

Another possible problem in meeting the MDGs could be a transition process that PEPFAR funded programs have been going through. In South Africa it is estimated that “between 50,000 and 200,000 people may have fallen out of care in the transition”. Indeed, there are probably several reports available that would point to the reason for the fall in coverage, but journalists and politicians don’t seem to like reading reports.

Yes another article from Kenya has come up with an even more impertinent suggestion. It claims that there has been an ‘upsurge’ in gay sex, which is slowing the ‘war’ on HIV. The article suggests that Kenya has achieved a lot, with prevalence dropping from 7.2% to 5.6%. Perhaps they are expecting the next set of results to be less flattering.

Men who have sex with men face very high risk of being infected with HIV, and of transmitting it. But Kenya and most other African countries have refused to accept that this is a group that needs special attention, preferring to accept the HIV industry’s contention that most HIV transmission in African countries is a result of unsafe heterosexual sex. It sounds far more manly, doesn’t it.

Because transmission has decreased in some populations, the contribution of infections from men who have sex with men may look like it is increasing. But the claim that the country may not meet some of its MDGs because of an ‘upsurge in gay sex’ is as outrageous as the claim that industrial disputes are disrupting progress in reducing new HIV transmissions.

These are cheap shots at health personnel, gays and traditional birth attendants. But governments, NGOs, UNAIDS, donors and the lucrative HIV industry need all the help they can get when it comes to explaining why billions of dollars did not seem to result in particularly rapid declines in HIV transmission. There will be more to come.

Predicting the Millennium Development Goal Scapegoats


Come 2015 a lot of people will still be flailing about looking for scapegoats to explain their country’s falling short of various Millennium Development Goals. But one group of scapegoats must be well accustomed to having the finger pointed at them; traditional birth attendants (TBA). In an article from Uganda appearing on AllAfrica.com, TBAs are being “blamed for HIV among newborn babies”.

Is the finger of blame being pointed at them on the basis of research this time, or is it the usual politico/journalistic reflex? The sheer vagueness of the article suggests that it is based on the latter. What self-respecting politician or journalist would read research, anyhow? No checkable source is cited, though that’s nothing unusual for AllAfrica.com; and one of the people cited says “there are many deaths and new HIV infections among new babies that go undocumented and [...] the statistics may be falling short of the exact number”.

If some of the new infections among babies are documented, why are they not also investigated? Are the mothers HIV positive? Or are some of the mothers HIV negative? HIV negative mothers with HIV positive babies are not uncommon, but investigations into this phenomenon in African countries is very rare indeed.

An obvious question for politicians, journalists and others who wish to indulge in the perennial practice of blaming people, whether they be TBAs, men who have sex with men, women, foreigners, truckers or whoever else, is why HIV prevalence tends to be a lot higher in areas where people have better access to health facilities. TBAs tend to be more common in isolated and rural areas, where HIV prevalence is generally a lot lower.

The suggestion is that TBAs are not able to protect babies of HIV positive mothers from being infected, whereas qualified health personnel may be able to prvent mother to child transmission. True as this may be, how are TBAs supposed to be able to resolve this problem themselves? If it is the case that about half of all deliveries are overseen by TBAs, rather than conventional health personnel, this is hardly the fault of TBAs. They are not drawing big salaries, nor are they receiving thorough training or any other incentives for their work.

There are severe shortages of skilled health personnel in Ugandan health facilities. The facilities are stretched beyond their limits already. Is the government going to import enough doctors, nurses and others to fill the 50-60% shortfall that many facilities are experiencing? And more importantly, if the health facilities are going to be even more oversubscribed than they currently are, how safe will they be then? They are not currently safe places to give birth and some health figures show that those attending health facilities could be at higher risk of being infected with HIV.

Before blaming TBAs, it would be a good idea to carry out some research to find out exactly how so many babies are being infected with HIV, and how many have HIV negative mothers. Once that is clear, Uganda will be in a position to figure out what to do next, though it remains to be seen whether the country will be provided with the means to do anything effective. Donors are often keen on providing various health services for high profile, newsworthy conditions, but they are a lot less enthusiastic when it comes to ensuring that health services are safe.

Justine Sacco: Dangerous Truths and Dangerous Falsehoods about HIV


An American on her way to South Africa is said to have Tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” This is a heartless and insensitive remark to make. But what makes it most heartless and insensitive for a white American to say it is the fact that it is so true. In the US, African Americans accounted for 44% of all new HIV infections in 2010, despite representing only 12-14% of the population. Also in the US, men who have sex with men are said to represent about 4% of the population, but account for 63% of all new HIV infections in 2010, and a disproportionate number of them are black/African American.

Even in South Africa HIV prevalence among white people is very low. But national prevalence is amongst the highest in the world and there are more HIV positive people in South Africa than in any other country. While America has the worst HIV epidemic in the developed world, with over 1.1 million HIV positive people, the majority of infections arise among men who have sex with men and (to a lesser extent) intravenous drug users. HIV infection among white heterosexuals who have no serious risks, such as receptive anal sex or intravenous drug use, is very low.

The American who tweeted the first stupid, but sadly true, remark offended so many people that she arrived in South Africa to find that a storm had erupted on Twitter and she had lost her job. So, to make matters worse, she made a statement to a South African newspaper which contained a dangerous but often heard falsehood:

“For being insensitive to this crisis — which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly — and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed.”

This is completely untrue, as the figures for the US show so clearly. About two thirds of people living with HIV globally are black Africans. An estimated 60% of HIV positive people in Africa are female, compared to only 20% of new infections in the US in 2010. Hispanics and Latinos in the US made up 21% of new infections in 2010; the rate of infection was 2.9 times higher in Latinos than it was in white males; it was also 4.2 times higher in Latinas than in white women.

HIV most definitely does discriminate by race, gender and sexual orientation. This is not a new discovery, either. It may be an acceptable thing to say in certain circles, but we should never forget the differences between HIV in Africa, where the majority of HIV positive people live, and HIV in developed countries, where HIV is less prevalent overall, and is rare among heterosexuals who have no serious risk behaviors.

Justine Sacco, who tweeted the remark, is so right to think that she is very unlikely to be infected with HIV; a lot less likely than a black African, and also less likely than a black or Latino/Latina American. It is disturbing to think that so many people continue to believe or say otherwise. Why is HIV prevalence so high among black Africans and black/African Americans, yet comparatively low among white people, especially white men who engage in no serious risk behaviors?