Monday, January 16, 2017

Dear Researcher, What Kind of Whore am I?

My last blog post was about a researcher who seems to have found what she was looking for (young girls who claim to have had sex for money to buy sanitary towels) and now uses the finding to get publicity and, presumably, funding, or justification for funding if she has already received some.

Ten percent of the 15 year olds, allegedly, made this claim, which amounts to fewer than 20 people from a survey of 3000. But the researcher took what they said at face value because they were saying the right thing. The researcher is selling menstrual cups (specifically, mooncups) in a high HIV prevalence area.

Another piece of research looked at serodiscordance, where each partner in a couple has a different HIV status, one positive and one negative (or they are each infected with a recognizably distinct viral type). It was found that more women than men are in discordant relationships, which is taken to indicate that women are more 'promiscuous' than men, or more 'promiscuous' than previously assumed.

The researchers concluded that "due to social desirability bias, women in stable relationships practice concurrent partnerships more than reported". In other words, the women whose partner was HIV negative but who were themselves HIV positive 'lied' about their sexual behavior.

The researchers, following the received view of HIV, believe that the virus is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sexual intercourse in high prevalence countries in 'Africa', but not in most countries outside of 'Africa'. Therefore, HIV positive women in a discordant relationship must have been lying.

In the mooncup research, the researcher believed what was heard, and reported it as she heard it. But in the serodiscordance research the researcher did not believe what was heard, so it was classed as a 'bias', no different from saying that those women were lying.

Although there are all kinds of names for various different biases that plague certain kinds of research, it's a bit harder to find names for the biases of researchers, who go into the field armed with their prejudices and the findings that they (and probably their funders and institutions, etc) seek, and proceed to grab what fits their preconceptions, discard what doesn't, and put a spin on anything else that can be salvaged.

A very disturbing paper claims to identify three paradigms of 'transactional sex', for those who thought it only referred to sex for money. They identify:

Sex for basic needs
Sex for improved social status
Sex and material expressions of love

So there you have it! Since the study is not about people who are seen as straightforward sex workers and people who are married, it's difficult to imagine what proportion of females could not be associated with any of these categories. Some authors on the subject conclude that females who don't receive anything for sex (and, I guess, some who do), are coerced into having sex.

This is about sex in 'African' countries, by the way, so you don't need to start thinking about any time you may have had sex that some zealous researcher could fit into one of their little boxes, unless you are 'African'. Of course, if you are male (and 'African') then you are likely to be a John or a sexual abuser.

So how can you tell if you have had sex for reasons that the researcher can not classify as transactional or forced, how to tell if you are a prostitute, a victim, a John or a sexual abuser? Or, looking at it another way, if you are not from an 'African' country, neither are you married, nor a sex worker, have all your sexual experiences been of a kind that these researchers might approve?

Those writing on the subject often talk of females lacking power, and of the intervention they are researching, such as marketing mooncups and the like, as 'empowering'. Indeed, the subject of power often arises in discussions of HIV in 'Africa'. As if we (the reseachers, NGOs, etc) have power and we are looking for downtrodden victims upon whom we may bestow it, if they just give the right answers to our questions (we can also tread down those awful men, too).

Shockingly, these well funded researchers really do wield great power in developing countries. They define what kind of person you are, a victim, an abuser, a prostitute, a john, and they tell others how to use these definitions, giving them a small share of their funding if they allocate people to the correct boxes.

The same researchers decide what they will accept as a valid response, on the one hand, and what they will put down to bias on the other, effectively calling the respondent a liar, unable or unwilling to accurately describe how they see themselves and their place in their own environment.

There are some who seem to go to the field with a blinkered view of HIV in high prevalence African countries, where they refuse to accept evidence that doesn't fit their preconceived notions of 'African' sexuality, where sex is generally paid for (somehow) or forced, always 'unsafe', rarely (if ever) for pleasure and certainly not for love. If you are a HIV positive 'African', heck, even if you just have sex, you are (probably) a whore or a john.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Questionable Research: Are Menstrual Cups A Hard Sell?

In May of 2016, the English Guardian gushed:

The 2015 study that they carried out is more careful in some ways. "Caution is suggested in interpreting the data provided, and particularly for analyses on low prevalence behaviors such as sex for money for sanitary products." The study also reveals that the number of 15 year olds who claimed to have had sex to get money, specifically to get sanitary pads, was fewer than 20.

Another Guardian article appeared in the last few days on the same subject. The articles are both promoting a menstrual cup as an alternative to expensive, disposable sanitary pads, or similar ware.

Access to sanitary ware is vital for the health and welfare of girls and women, and making devices like the menstrual cup available is an excellent alternative to the ridiculously expensive disposable sanitary ware available in most places.

But if it's a right, and vital for health, why dress this up as an attempt to 'rescue' 15 year olds who are said to be resorting to ‘transactional sex’ just to purchase sanitary pads? One of the researchers also claims the girls are often coerced into having sex.

Back in sensationalist mode, the recent Guardian article cites the same author and study:

Note, 3000 women, but fewer than 200 15 year olds. Both Guardian articles are about having sex for money to buy pads, rather than having sex in return for pads. But the abstract of the 2015 article seems to blur this distinction, which I would argue is an important one if we are to judge whether this research is useful, however abused, or highly questionable.

There is also an article from a 2013 study, for which Phillips-Howard is a contributor, which clearly talks about both, having sex for money to buy sanitary ware and having sex for sanitary ware.

However, the 2013 article is quite different because it states that "Girls reported [my emphasis] 'other girls' but not themselves participated in transactional sex to buy pads, and received pads from boyfriends." Claiming that other people do this may indicate that the respondent has simply heard such things, perhaps from peers, teachers, various sources of information about sanitary matters, or even presentations about HIV.

Going back to the two possible phenomena, sex to get pads (from sexual partners) and sex to get money to buy pads, do either of these stand up to scrutiny? The first seems unlikely on the basis of other claims and findings made in the literature cited, such as that few people want to talk about menstruation; males don't at all, even many females generally don't.
Do men buy sanitary pads as gifts for their sexual partners? I imagine this is rare. I have bought sanitary pads in East African shops and people don’t hide their reactions. Perhaps it happens.

Claims about girls engaging in 'transactional' sex can be found throughout the HIV, health, development and anthropological literature, all over the place. Sex in Africa is a common obsession among academics, journalists, policy makers, civil servants, Guardian readers, etc. There are claims that some girls have sex for status, food, mobile phones, phone credit, just about anything that a girl may want (or that they may be said to want).

Is it credible that lots of girls have 'transactional' sex for money, which they then use to buy sanitary pads? Well, again the articles state several reasons to think that they don't, or don't do so very much. After all, they have families with small incomes, they need to buy food, to pay bills, including school fees. Would they prioritize sanitary pads, having gone as far as to engage in 'transactional' sex?

The literature goes from claiming that girls say other girls have sex for sanitary pads or sex for money to buy sanitary pads, to claiming that 10% of 15 year old girls claim that they have had sex for money to buy sanitary pads.

By my reading, the causal link between engaging in 'transactional' sex and purchasing sanitary pads is lost if the girls don't have sex in return for the pads. But if the claim is that they have sex for the pads then the literature itself undermines the claim that some men are happy to purchase them as gifts in return for sex.

We can’t rule out the possibility that someone has engaged in ‘transactional’ sex for money to buy sanitary pads, nor the possibility that someone has done so in return for sanitary pads. But Phillips-Howard's claim that girls are literally selling their bodies to get sanitary pads looks more like a desperate attempt to shore up poor quality research than a genuine argument for the benefits of providing girls in developing countries with the most appropriate means to ensure menstrual hygiene.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Gag at the Stench of Bullshit: Durban HIV Conference

After decades of insisting that HIV in sub-Saharan African countries is almost always a result of 'unsafe' sex, and that infections can be averted by 'abstaining' from sex, being 'faithful' to one partner and using condoms, the massive HIV industry may now be admitting that these 'behavioral' approaches don't work, and never have:

"Dube believes that early access to ART (antiretroviral therapy) is the way forward after a decade of trying to change behaviour barely dented the transmission rate."

But the industry still insists that HIV is mostly transmitted via heterosexual (penile-vaginal) sex, in sub-Saharan African countries. Curiously outside of sub-Saharan Africa, the bulk of HIV transmissions are due to receptive anal sex and intravenous drug use.

The reasoning for this is not so complex: the vast majority of people engage in sexual intercourse at some time in their life. Just as the HIV industry really (really, REALLY) wanted behavioral programs to work, because few viable alternatives were acknowledged, now they really want antiretroviral drugs to work.

Instead of identifying people infected with HIV as early as possible, monitoring their health, and putting them on ARVs when they clearly need them, the HIV industry has come up with 'treatment as prevention', which means anyone testing positive for HIV will be put on ARVs, for the rest of their life.

Not content with getting as many HIV positive people on ARVs as possible, the industry has also come up with PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). This means that people can go on ARVs before they are infected. The industry can then 'target' the people they say are in need of PrEP. After all, who wants to prevent infection with such a lucrative virus?

Hey presto! If almost everyone engages in sexual intercourse at some time, then almost everyone is at risk! The number of people infected with HIV globally is between 30 and 40 million (depending on whose figures you use), which might seem like a very large market for the bloodsucking HIV industry.

But in a few strategic moves, the market rockets to hundreds of millions, perhaps even a billion or so, as rubbish behavioral problems are dropped all over the developing world, to be replaced by the imposition of enormous drug programs. Sure, individuals don't have to pay, but someone does; who, by the way, is going to pay?

Sex workers are an easy target, always have been. Even deciding who is a sex worker is a matter of debate among the HIV 'experts' (but certainly not among sex workers themselves). But how about the biggest HIV positive demographic in South Africa, which has the largest HIV positive population in the world? Teenage girls, many of whom are just becoming sexually active. What about giving PrEP to all of them, says the HIV industry?

Never mind prevention they say, treatment IS prevention they say, as they bank their billions and brand yet more sectors of the population as 'at risk'. Meanwhile, young people are demanding things that they feel are important, such as sanitary pads and condoms (how much was spent on condoms over the last 20 years?)

Some people are even demanding cancer drugs. Why are some people not able to access these? Is it because cancer is old news? Not 'sexy' enough any more? Or is it because many of the patents on cancer drugs have long expired, and the number of people involved is only a fraction of the number of people who can have ARVs for life; cancer drug regimens are not life-long.

If HIV negative people are to be given ARVs to 'protect them from infection', what about people who are already HIV positive but still don't have access to treatment? There are an estimated 20 million HIV positive people thought to be unable to access treatment (again, depending on who is counting, according to which methodology).

Poor Charlize Theron, who says it's not an honor to host the Durban HIV conference because 'we should have eliminated HIV by now'. So they didn't tell her that this is the biggest opportunity in history that Big Pharma has had to put hundreds of millions of people on overpriced drugs that they will need for the rest of their lives?


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Zimbabwe: Thought Embargo at HIV Inc to Continue Indefinitely

Naturally, there are some men who have sex with men in prisons, and not just in Zimbabwe. But that is not just because men are more likely to have sex with men when incarcerated for lengthy periods with men, denied conjugal visits and other rights. It's also because having sex with someone of the same gender can itself attract a prison sentence.
However, what the health minister fails to realize is that there tend to be very poor health services in prisons. If he had inspected health services in prisons he would have come to a very different conclusion. Indeed, had he inspected health services outside of prisons he would also have come to a different conclusion about Zimbabwe's massive HIV epidemic.
Prevalence in Zimbabwe had already reached about 15% in the early 1990s (compared to about 1% in South Africa). But it shot up to almost 30% before the end of the decade, then dropped back to early 1990s levels in less than 10 years. The figure has remained at roughly half its peak for the last decade or so.
The death rates required to bring prevalence from 30% to 15% in less than 10 years must have been phenomenal. Did the esteemed (and I'm sure astute) Parirenyatwa notice a sudden rise in prison populations during the 1990s, followed by a profound drop, with a subsequent flatlining thereafter? Or a sudden rise in male to male sex? Or a sudden rise in 'unsafe' sex among heterosexuals?
I don't think so. But I also doubt if the health minister has a clue what was going on in the country's health services then, or perhaps now. Massive increases in HIV transmission during the 1990s was very likely a result of a decrease in levels of safety in health facilities, along with a probable increase in usage of health facilities.
Minister, HIV is most efficiently transmitted through unsafe skin piercing procedures, such as injections with reused injecting equipment, surgical instruments, etc, also through unsafe body piercing and tattooing, and even through unsafe traditional practices, such as scarification, blood oaths and others.
Just how unsafe would cosmetic and traditional practices be in a prison? We can only guess. How safe would they be elsewhere? It's unlikely anyone has checked. If they have, they would have found it difficult to publish the findings.
It's easy to blame high HIV prevalence on 'promiscuity', male to male sex, carelessness, stupidity, malice and other phenomena, so beloved by journalists and others milking the HIV cow, far too easy. But ministers, journalists, academics, and even those who have reached lofty heights in international NGOs and the like, are still permitted to consider the roles of unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices. I invite them to do so.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

'African' Sexuality: Consensus or Prejudice?

An article by Damien de Walque, entitled 'Is male promiscuity the main route of HIV/AIDS transmission in Africa?', seems curiously behind the times. He refers to the "pervasive if unstated belief in the HIV/AIDS community...that males are primarily responsible for spreading the infection among married and cohabiting couples".
Disturbingly, de Walque goes on to conclude that, because women are as likely as men to be the infected partner in discordant relationships (where only one partner is HIV positive), both male and female promiscuity must be the main route of transmission. This is by no means the only possible conclusion; far more women than men are infected with HIV in high prevalence African countries, but this could be a result of other risks, particularly non-sexual risks.
However, women being almost as likely as men to be the infected partner in discordant relationships was not a new discovery when de Walque was writing in 2011. Gisselquist, Potterat, Brody and Vachon published an article in 2003 entitled 'Let it be sexual: how health care transmission of AIDS in Africa was ignored', which presents evidence from the 1980s showing that women are almost as likely as men to be the positive partner in discordant relationships. They also show that neither is promiscuity the main route.
The article by Gisselquist et al looks back at papers from the 1980s demonstrating clearly that the bulk of HIV transmission in African countries is not sexually transmitted. Data collected about sexual behavior does not support the view that Africa is exceptional. Rather, data about other risks, such as unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices was either not collected, or was ignored.
Even the abstract gives a good sense of what was going on in the 1980s (and is still going on). I'll cite it in full, adding italics for emphasis:
"The consensus among influential AIDS experts that heterosexual transmission accounts for 90% of HIV infections in African adults emerged no later than 1988.We examine evidence available through 1988, including risk measures associating HIV with sexual behaviour, health care, and socioeconomic variables, HIV in children, and risks for HIV in prostitutes and STD patients. Evidence permits the interpretation that health care exposures caused more HIV than sexual transmission. In general population studies, crude risk measures associate more than half of HIV infections in adults with health care exposures. Early studies did not resolve questions about direction of causation (between injections and HIV) and confound (between injections and STD). Preconceptions about African sexuality and a desire to maintain public trust in health care may have encouraged discounting of evidence. We urge renewed, evidence-based, investigations into the proportion of African HIV from non-sexual exposures."
Consensus among influential experts should be based on available data; not only did these experts ignore a lot of available data, they failed to collect a lot of data that could have led to a very different consensus. But several long-held preconceptions, for example, about 'African' sexual behavior, may have had undue influence on the consensus of these experts. It is these preconceptions that I am interested in.
By claiming that UNAIDS is going to change its name to UNAZI (as far as I know, they are not going to), I wished to draw attention to the fact that the still current claim that HIV is almost always transmitted via heterosexual contact in African countries (but nowhere else) is based on the preconceived views of some very prejudiced 'experts'. UNAIDS acquired a consensus of experts who had decided, before the institution was established, that they were going to concentrate almost exclusively on heterosexual transmission, and diminish the role of unsafe healthcare and other non-sexual transmission routes.
The big lie about HIV in 'Africa' is that 80% (sometimes 90%) of prevalence is from 'unsafe' heterosexual sex, and most of the remaining 20% (or 10%) is from mother to child transmission. This lie emerged in the 1980s, from 'experts' who knew that it was a lie. The entire HIV industry is still based on this lie three decades later. As a result, most African people are unaware that unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices may be a far bigger HIV risk than sexual behavior.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

UNAIDS Becomes UNAZI - Focus At Last?

UNAIDS reached 20 and became 21 without anyone really noticing. HIV prevalence had peaked in some of the worst affected countries by the time the institution was established, but many epidemics had only just begun.
For example, HIV prevalence in South Africa was very low in 1990, probably less than 1%. Along with several other southern African countries, prevalence rocketed for much of the following 10 to 15 years, eventually making this zone the worst affected in the world.
HIV epidemics tend to concentrate in certain zones, rather than in certain countries. A large area in southern Africa constitutes one of these zones, taking in much of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia and parts of Mozambique and Malawi.
But some zones are not best described by national boundaries. The areas surrounding Lake Victoria, for example, make up another zone, bringing together a large proportion of the HIV positive population of Kenya and Uganda (and, formerly, Tanzania).
Many HIV zones are cities, such as Bujumbura and Nairobi, hotspots, surrounded by relatively low prevalence areas. But some zones are more rural and isolated from big cities, such as the Njombe region of southern Tanzania, where prevalence is higher than anywhere else in the country.
All the northern African countries make up a very low prevalence zone, with most western African countries making up a higher prevalence zone. Central Africa and the western Equatorial area are fairly low prevalence, but eastern Africa used to be the highest prevalence zone, and there are still several million people living with HIV there.
So the United Nations Aids Zones Initiative is, presumably, going to make distinctions between 'Africans', who have all been lumped together by UNAIDS. Rather than referring to, say, Kenya's epidemic, there will be the Lake Victoria Zone, the Mombasa Zone, and so on. After all, prevalence in some parts of the country is lower than in many rich countries, such as Canada.
A country like Tanzania, where 95% of the population is HIV negative (and only about 2% of the population are receiving treatment), will now be able to spend health funding on diseases that affect many people, diseases that have long been ignored. Health services there and in other countries should benefit considerably from the creation of UNAZI.
But the most important change will be in the received view of HIV, the view that it is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sex in 'African' countries (though nowhere else in the world). UNAZI will not be able to claim, as UNAIDS did, that there are certain zones on the continent where heterosexual practices are somehow exceptional!
We can look forward to an immediate reduction in the stigma that goes with branding anyone infected with HIV as promiscuous (or as a helpless victim of promiscuity). Whatever explains the concentration of HIV in these zones will be unrelated to sexual behavior; the explanation is far more likely to relate to unsafe healthcare, even unsafe cosmetic and traditional practices (although the first is the main suspect).
UNAZI will be much more than a change in name, or a change in focus. It will also be an exit strategy, a way of attending (belatedly) to the main causes of HIV epidemics, without admitting that UNAIDS and their chums have been lying for so long, of course. UNAZI will probably only last long enough to 'turn off the tap' that UNAIDS never acknowledged, and then quietly re-merge with WHO.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Institutionalizing Violence Against Women (and Men)

It is not news that injectible Depo Provera (DMPA, a hormonal contraceptive) doubles the risk of HIV negative women being infected, and doubles the risk of HIV positive women infecting their sexual partner with HIV. Nor is it news that injectible Depo is mostly used in developing countries, and among non-white people in the US. Therefore, it tends to be used in places where HIV prevalence is higher, and among populations with higher prevalence in low prevalence countries.
Why use injectible Depo when this is well known? Defenders of the product claim that using it cuts other risks, such as unplanned pregnancies, particularly among HIV positive women. They feel this mitigates the risk of transmitting the virus, or of becoming infected. Strange logic, but such is the mindset of the HIV industry, and those who (very strenuously and aggressively) defend the use of injectible Depo.
If various NGOs, public health programs, research programs and others wanted to carry out their work ethically, they would tell the women (and hopefully their sexual partners) about the doubling in risk of HIV transmission, but the warnings given are vague. Therefore, women (and men) are put at increased risk of being infected with HIV, or of infecting others. Many of these same NGOs, their funders and associates would also claim to be opposed to violence against women. But failing to inform them about the increased risk constitutes violence against women (and men).
Stupider still is the proposal to use PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, antiretroviral drugs taken to prevent infection) to reduce the risk that injectible Depo will increase HIV transmission. Why not just use a different hormonal contraceptive, preferably an oral form? Well, one of the arguments for not using an oral form is that some sexual partners may object to women using oral contraceptives, especially if they are married to the woman. It is argued that women can be given Depo Provera once every three months, without their sexual partner knowing.
But will the partner not wonder why the woman is taking oral PrEP? And if they try to find out why she is taking it, may they not also find out that the woman is HIV positive, believes her sexual partner to be HIV positive, or is taking injectible contraceptives? Are we not back to square one?
Where are the narcissistic 'feminist' stars of film, music and other arts when you need them? They are too busy screaming about what sex workers want (or should want) to see real violence against women, happening right in front of them. Many of those being (aggressively) persuaded to use injectible Depo Provera are sex workers (or are believed to be by those doing the persuading). What about their right to know the risks from injectible hormonal contraceptive to themselves and their partners?
It is claimed that using injectible Depo Provera can protect women from violence; but it also constitutes an act of violence against them and their sexual partners. In addition, the 'protective' value of Depo Provera (against violence, not HIV) is lost if the woman also takes PrEP (to protect her against HIV). The use of injectible Depo Provera is an act of institutionalized violence against women (and men). It should not be used as a vehicle for selling pre-exposure prophylaxis.