Wednesday, January 13, 2010

We Don't Need Evidence that Health, Education and Other Social Services Are Good

You might think that HIV prevention interventions have some bearing on the context in which they are implemented. For example, you might think that interventions to persuade people to have fewer partners are concentrated in areas where it has been shown that people have many sexual partners. Or you might think that about interventions to persuade people to avoid concurrent relationships, sexual relationships with more than one person at a time.

But in fact, interventions are mostly the same wherever you go, whether it's a developed country or an underdeveloped one. The little research that has been done into sexual behaviour suggests that in some places people have far more lifetime sexual partners than in others and even that in some places people have more concurrent sexual relationships. But no research shows that areas where people have more sexual partners or more concurrent sexual relationships actually correspond closely with areas of high HIV prevalence.

It's just an assumption that if HIV prevalence is high, people there much have more sex, more partners and more concurrent relationships. Some of the research that has been done clearly demonstrates that areas with high levels of HIV have lower levels of multiple partnerships and concurrent partnerships. It also demonstrates that areas with high levels of multiple partnerships and concurrent partnerships have lower rates of HIV. Clearly, unsafe sex is unsafe, wherever it occurs and however, but specific prevention programmes would need to be clear about what kind of 'unsafe' sexual behaviour, precisely, is occurring and how to change that.

But HIV prevention interventions are more likely to be dreamed up by those with political, religious or commercial interests, in complete isolation from anything that could be called evidence. And so far, they have almost all worked equally badly, whether it's in South Africa, which has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world or the US, which has the highest HIV prevalence in the developed world. These failures are not because of lack of available evidence about what would work and what would not work, though there is a lack of evidence. The failure is because HIV prevention funding has been seen as a matter of 'morals', petty politics and a good way to make some money.

If these circumstances were to change, what hope would there be that the high rates of HIV transmission in many countries of the world could be reduced? The issue of concurrent partners is hotly debated by the foremost academics in the field. But what these people don't disagree on is whether condoms work. There is no evidence that condoms don't work, though they are not 100% efficient. There is only a prejudice against the use of condoms because people who use condoms are having sex. But if people weren't having sex there would be no HIV pandemic.

I have never heard an academic, or anyone else, arguing that education, health education and sexual health education are bad and producing evidence to support their arguments. I have only heard bigoted politicians and religious leaders who seem to know little and care less about what their country's children know about sex and sexuality. Over and over again, it has been shown that children who know about sex and sexuality are more likely to delay their first sexual experience and to take precautions against unplanned pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Research into sexual behaviour is not just scarce, it's hard to do and the results are rightly hotly debated. But we don't need to wait for this difficult and costly research to be completed to aim to cut the transmission of HIV. It would be immoral to wait for this research. We know now that people have sex and they need sex education and contraception. They need health services, especially sexual and reproductive health services. The majority of new cases of HIV transmission in developing countries are still sexually transmitted, so to those who say HIV prevention is difficult or that evidence is lacking: this is not completely true.

Sure, there are controversies and there is research that badly needs to be done. But ignoring the efficacy of condoms, education, health and other social services in cutting the transmission is not only wrong, it is also disingenuous. Access to education, health and other social services are human rights so no 'evidence' is needed for these areas to be funded straight away. And while we're considering these human rights, we could also take a look at gender imbalances of all kinds, but especially relating to employment, family law, inheritance and marital power imbalances.

High HIV prevalence relates to the broad determinants of sexual and other types of behaviour, to the overall conditions in which people live, to their levels of health, education, wealth and many other things. HIV prevention has mainly concentrated on individual sexual behaviour and this is one of the things that makes reducing HIV transmission appear to be so intractable.

As the authors of a paper published in The Lancet over three years ago conclude: "No general approach to sexual-health promotion will work everywhere, and no single-component intervention will work anywhere. We need to know not only whether interventions work, but why and how they do so in particular social contexts. Comprehensive behavioural interventions are needed that take account of the social context, attempt to modify social norms to support uptake and maintenance of behaviour change, and tackle the structural factors that contribute to risky sexual behaviour."


1 comment:

School of Social Work said...

This post is nice which gives good information about how to prevent our self from HIV

Great post !