Sunday, November 21, 2010

After Decades of Torpor, Is WHO Waking Up to the Problem of Unsafe Injections?

Recently, I wrote about condom manufacturers' apparent lack of concern that their products seem to get such bad press where clinical trials of HIV related medicines are concerned. I also linked to an article about a group of Nigerians  taking their government and various other state and non-state institutions to court because they used condoms correctly and consistently but still became infected with HIV. Several non-Nigerian institutions are also involved, including Family Health International (FHI).

Granted, numerous institutions have conspired to blame HIV transmission in Africa almost entirely on sexual behavior, when this is clearly not the whole story. But plaintiffs argue that they were used to test the efficiency of a particular brand of condoms, which were substandard. Perhaps there is evidence that this particular brand of condoms was faulty, in which case, they should indeed be withdrawn.

But the plaintiffs appear to want all condoms to be withdrawn from the market. It would be very surprising of it turned out that all condoms were faulty, despite the claims of the Catholic and other churches that this is so. There is plenty of evidence that condoms are effective in preventing the transmission of HIV and various other sexually transmitted infections. Condoms remain the most effective protection against sexual transmission of HIV.

What condoms don't do is protect people from non-sexual HIV transmission. This may sound too obvious a point to make, but there have been constant claims that abstaining from sex, only having sex with one, faithful partner and using condoms, are the only strategies for avoiding HIV transmission. Worse still, some claim that abstinence from sex is the only way. None of these claims are true.

Abstaining, being faithful and even using condoms will only protect from sexual transmission of HIV. They will not protect from non-sexual transmission, such as through intravenous drug use, unsafe medical practices or unsafe cosmetic practices.

Rather than admitting that they are wrong, the HIV hierarchy also claim that non-sexual HIV transmission is very rare in African countries. Such transmission happens in other countries, poor Asian countries, rich Western countries, Eastern European countries and everywhere else. But, it is claimed, it is too rare in African countries to merit more than about 1% of prevention funding. Never mind that health services range from appalling to non-existent in most African countries.

The WHO is relatively unenlightened when it comes to admitting that HIV prevention strategies are in need of review, given their almost total lack of success over the past few decades. But they do accept that unsafe injections are extremely common. Syringes and other injecting equipment are unsafe because single use equipment are being reused, without adequate (or perhaps any) sterilization.

According to the WHO, "in Africa alone, 20 million medical injections contaminated with blood from patients with HIV are administered every year". How they can also estimate that this results in only 23,000 HIV infections (also, a million hepatitis C and 21 million hepatitis B infections) every year is a mystery, given the efficiency of HIV infection through reused injecting equipment. But it gives an indication of the scale of the problem.

Apparently there is a campaign in Tanzania to have all single use injection equipment phased out and replaced with 'auto-disable' equipment, which breaks after use and therefore can't be reused. The sooner the better.

However, Tanzania's problem is not just with single use injection equipment being reused. They also have too few medical facilities, too few trained healthcare staff, too little equipment and various other things. It remains to be seen if the introduction of auto-disable syringes will be accompanied by improvements in supplies and all the other lacks. After all, there must be some reason why the health and lives of so many people are being put at risk for want of cheap equipment.

The Nigerian case is somewhat different because it appears to claim that a particular brand of condoms do not adequately protect against HIV infection. But the WHO findings, which probably seriously underestimate the problem, make it quite clear that sex alone is not responsible for HIV transmission in countries with sub-standard health services. Therefore, HIV prevention strategies should be extended to include the prevention of non-sexually transmitted HIV, especially nosocomial infections, those occurring in hospitals as a result of medical treatment.

[If you are interested in the question of whether people will be prepared to combine strategies, such as male circumcision, mcirobicides and pre-exposure prophylaxis with continued condom use, see my other blog.]


1 comment:

Samual said...
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