Friday, October 23, 2009

Towards a Vaccine for Stupidity?

In an article entitled 'HIV vaccine trial results raise more questions', the recent, much reported vaccine trial results are, it is suggested, open to many interpretations. But whether a HIV vaccine is still a distant hope or already close at hand, I would argue, is not what we should be concentrating on.

Some of the reasons why many people are becoming infected with HIV and other sexually transmitted infections could be that they do not have access to good sex education or family planning, they do not use condoms, they are not always in a position to choose whether to have sex, when, with whom, how often and under what circumstances. True, many people know that HIV is a threat but there are so many threats that people just get on with their lives, HIV positive or otherwise. But this only partly explains high HIV prevalence.

Health, education and other social services are pretty much inaccessible to the majority of Kenyans and the majority of people in all developing countries. People are, effectively, denied their rights to a decent standard of living. They live in poverty and suffer from the consequences of poverty. People experience all manner of illnesses that are easily and cheaply controlled and many die unnecessarily, often at a very young age.

HIV is just one of numerous diseases that threatens the lives of people in developing countries, just one chronic disease that further impoverishes people who are already impoverished. The fact that billions of dollars are spent on finding HIV vaccines and other drugs does not make people more scared of it. Sometimes it even makes people think that a vaccine or cure is probably just around the corner.

Cures and vaccines are likely to be some way off; affordable cures and vaccines are quite another story. But, as we have seen over a period of more than two decades, people certainly don't modify their behaviour in the way that health and other professionals suggest they should. This is as true of developed countries as it is of developing countries, as true of HIV as it is of obesity, dangerous driving, drinking, various kinds of exploitation, corruption, crime and drug use.

What should we be concentrating on? Instead of putting such copious amounts of HIV funding into treating people already infected, a lot more money and effort needs to be put into preventing new infections from occurring. Much of the money currently spent on treatment and care of HIV positive people goes into intellectual property. In other words, there is existing legislation that would allow the costs to be cut, substantially, without reducing current levels of treatment and care.

As to what measures could lead to preventing HIV infections, a lot of research is needed, research that must be carried out without the biases of power politics, pseudo moral posturing, fashion and pure greed. By now, we know a lot about what doesn't work and we need to be frank in admitting that. But perhaps we also have some insights now; perhaps the promise of greater lifetime opportunities could lead to people taking fewer risks and making better decisions that relate to their health. The promise of a better standard of living, education, employment, habitation, health and social services could achieve a lot more than the patronising rubbish that has, up to now, passed as HIV prevention programming.

Most people in the world live in poverty and are denied their basic rights. They live in the majority world. Rather than putting so much of the world's aid money into a cure for one disease, some of this money could be used to change the way the minority world treats the majority of people. Indeed, much 'aid money' is used for all sorts of things aside from aid. It's used for 'technical assistance' (which usually means paying rich Western consultants and experts a little too handsomely for their advice), dumping surpluses, subsidizing the industries of rich countries, creating markets for consumer goods, etc.

Kenya and other countries not far from here are used and have long been used, as sources of cheap raw materials and labour. Much of the country's land and resources are given over to producing raw materials for the minority world. Much of its workforce receives very low pay, working in conditions that would be illegal in the West, to produce raw materials and cheap goods for the West.

Like all other diseases, HIV has a context, an environment. Countries with high HIV prevalence also have high rates of other diseases and other health and social problems. They suffer from extreme levels of deprivation and they are usually heavily exploited by rich and powerful countries. While a vaccine or cure for HIV may be a long way off, vaccines and cures for other diseases are not just available but cheap, for example treatment for intestinal parasites, which affect billions of people.

Some of the biggest killers are things like water borne diseases and acute respiratory conditions. Perhaps as much as half of the illnesses and premature deaths in developing countries could be avoided by provision of clean water and sanitation and decent places to live. That is not beyond human ingenuity, it just doesn't seem to get the same attention as a possible vaccine for one disease that affects far fewer people.


In a recent posting I argued that "it is not poor people in developing countries who contribute the most to global warming and environmental destruction, it is rich people in rich countries." A friend complemented me on this argument but I had to admit that it comes from an article entitled 'The Population Myth', by George Monbiot. Indeed, many of my views on development are influenced by the writings of Dr Monbiot and it was not my intention to claim credit for his work.



Michael J Starks said...

Thanks for the link to George Monbiot. He seems like quite a fascinating man. Excellent articles. I might have to spend all day at the computer reading again! Anyone else I should be reading???

Simon said...

Hi Michael
Thanks for your comment. Yes, Monbiot has covered and continues to cover many issues. He has also published a number of books, which could point to authors worth reading. The only authors that spring to mind now are Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse, but I'm sure there are plenty. The Wikipedia article for George Monbiot may also trigger further leads.