Friday, July 9, 2010

Will a New HIV Boss at WHO Make a Difference?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has a new head of HIV called Gottfried Hirnschall and he gave an interview recently to IRIN. Apparently he feels that, as a prevention message, abstinence is unrealistic. That's good, but not good enough. Abstinence didn't just fail because it's unrealistic. There's no reason why the option of choosing not to have sex under certain circumstances shouldn't be part of a comprehensive sex education program. It's just better if it's not called 'abstinence' and if it isn't the only trick in the box.

There are probably many reasons why HIV prevention programs have failed in African countries but the one reason that WHO, UNAIDS, CDC and all the main HIV institutions refuse to countenance is that not all HIV is transmitted sexually. They go as far as admitting that a small amount is transmitted non-sexualy, but not enough for them to bother spending money or time on. And sure enough, Hirnschall mentions male circumcision and 'treatment as prevention'.

But what does treatment as prevention involve? Because HIV positive people who are responding to antiretroviral treatment (ART) eventually have a low viral load, they are very unlikely to transmit HIV to their partner. If it were possible to test every sexually active member of a population regularly, say once a year, anyone found HIV positive could be put on treatment.

There are just two small flaws. One is that persuading the majority of sexually active people to be tested even once, even to save their lives, has proved elusive. The second is that the majority of people who are currently in need of treatment are not yet receiving it. Much of the funding for HIV treatment that was so fothcoming in recent years has been cut or flatlined. Just as the WHO released new guidelines that would put more people on ART, there isn't even enough money to keep some people already on treatment in drugs.

People on ART need to take the drugs every day for the rest of their lives. If they miss their dose too many times, resistance builds up and they need to move to a different drug regime, a far more expensive one. It is very difficult to get credible figures on what percentage of people in African countries are adhering to ART. But numbers of people dying from Aids is suspiciously high in some countries. It would be one thing if those providing people with the drugs could afford the second or third line drugs for those who develop resistance. But some countries are in the position of not even being able to afford first line drugs.

Hirnschall is asked about the shortage of money and he mentions 'task shifting', things like training nurses to do what doctors have been doing up till now. For people who don't mind being seen by a doctor or who really don't need to see a doctor, that's fine. Most people in developing countries don't get to see doctors anyway, they are too scarce. But even nurses are scarce and they are pretty stretched already. Perhaps more nurses will be trained and these ones will not be poached by rich countries.

So much for treatment, though it's not very much. But will those advocating putting more people on treatment get around to preventing new infections? Ok, they like to say that treatment is also prevention, but from a practical point of view, this will not work. People are becoming infected faster than others can be put on treatment and if money for treatment becomes scarce, where will prevention be then?

First of all, not all HIV is transmitted sexually. It needs to be established how much is coming from non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare and other things. And this needs to be dealt with because it sure as hell won't stop by handing out condoms, circumcising men and telling people how to run their sex lives. Hirnschall thinks that a HIV vaccine would be ideal. But what would be ideal would be to establish where most HIV infections are really coming from so that, even if there were a vaccine, we wouldn't need to waste so much money on it.

Second of all, if Hirnschall is worried about where all the money is going to come from if donors are thinking of pulling out he should get on to the issue of generic drugs. He talks about negotiating with big pharma. What's the point of negotiating with them? They want the highest price they can get, they know people in developing countries can't pay it but they think donors can. They will never reduce their prices to a reasonable level. The only way to ensure that drugs are made available at an affordable price is to open up the market to generic producers.

Of course, big pharma don't want that, they don't want to compete, they want to hide behind the protectionism of intellectual property 'rights'. There are companies well able to produce enough generics to supply everyone who needs ART, to scale up treatment and to continue treating people who go on to need second and third line drugs, as many people eventually will. This has to happen some time. It should have happened a long time ago. Will Hirnschall just drag his heels the way all the others are doing?

Is the WHO's new head of HIV just going to give us more of the same? Or is he going to question the behavioral paradigm that says that most HIV is transmitted sexually? And is he going to stop 'negotiating' with the blood suckers in big pharma and open up the drugs market to competition? If his aims are to reduce HIV transmission and eventually eradicate it, and to treat as many HIV positive people as possible, he will have to take both these steps.


1 comment:

Simon said...

The World Bank has also appointed a new head of HIV, Dr David Wilson. He says "One of the Bank's most important contributions is providing countries with evidence to better understand where and how new HIV infections are occurring, and to use proven approaches to tackle these infections. With better evidence we can make prevention services succeed and make AIDS treatment more sustainable."

That depends on what is done with the evidence. There is plenty of evidence that prevention programs have not been working, without any change of tack. And there is also plenty of evidence that not all HIV is transmitted sexually. That evidence just hasn't given rise to further research or adequate investigation.

All the evidence in the world will not make a career bureaucrat do anything that might get between them and their future 'successes'.