Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Uganda's HIV Epidemic: Mystery or Myth?

I have always worried about the way Uganda is held up as an example to other African countries on account of its early experience with HIV. What happened in Uganda earlier on is not the same as what happened later.

Early on in the epidemic, everything possible was done to reduce HIV transmission, both sexual and non-sexual transmission, in all their forms. Later, non-sexual transmission became more and more excluded and a set of myths about the efficacy of the ABC (abstain, be faithful, use condoms) strategy replaced any semblance of a coherent strategy.

The epidemic in Uganda took off earlier than in most other countries. HIV incidence, the rate of new infections, then declined and several years later, prevalence (the percentage of HIV positive people between the ages of 15 and 49) also declined.

It is not clear exactly why the epidemic took off when it did, nor is it too clear why incidence then peaked and declined. Measures to control the epidemic are likely to have played some part, of course, but how big a part has long been a matter of debate. Prevalence would have declined because of high death rates.

Once global HIV policy was thrown off course by ABC, or even AB or just A, it never got back on course. The burgeoning HIV industry's obsession with sex still rages and non-sexual HIV transmission, for example, through unsafe healthcare or cosmetic practices, is rarely talked about, let alone researched or investigated.

This leaves Uganda in a vulnerable position. The country receives a lot of HIV money, most of which is spent on drugs and care for HIV positive people. And the little left over for preventing new infections is spent on interventions that obviously don't prevent new infections.

Prevalence declines that resulted from high death rates have been reversed by a high rate of new infections. Those on treatment are likely to stay alive for longer, adding to increases in prevalence. But many HIV positive people still die, usually from treatable illnesses.

Not only is Uganda far from eradicating HIV, there is still a very serious epidemic in the country. Prevalence is bumping along, lower than it was during the worst years, true, but it has hardly changed for the last 10 years.

Infection rates in young people is often seen as a proxy for incidence because it's hard to measure incidence directly. But if young people who are just becoming sexually active are infected in large numbers, the epidemic is still very much alive. And 1.5% of people between 15 and 19 are HIV positive, 2.6% among girls and 0.3% among boys.

Of course, many of these teenagers could have been infected by mother to child transmission. But it's unlikely that they all were, unless this type of transmission is a lot more common that has been realized.

We are told that the highest burden of HIV, though, is now among married couples between 30 and 40 years old. In fact, it has been realized for some time that the majority of transmissions in Uganda appear to be a result of sex that is not 'unsafe' by any of the HIV industry's definitions.

HIV is common among those who don't have sex very much, are not likely to have several sex partners, and most of whom only have sex with a long term partner. Many, also, are in discordant relationships, their partner is not infected (or they did not infect each other). And half of the infected partners are female, so there goes the 'all men are promiscuous' theory of HIV transmission.

And that's the problem. If HIV is not primarily transmitted through unsafe sex, interventions that target unsafe sex will have little effect on transmission rates.

Yet the conclusion of Uganda's Ministry of Health is that they should encourage male circumcision, increase use of female condoms and awareness about HIV/AIDS. This may or may not reduce sexual HIV transmission. But after so many years watching HIV transmission stagnate, so many people becoming infected and so many dying, perhaps they could think about changing tack.

HIV is difficult to transmit sexually, yet it seems to be transmitted very rapidly in Uganda. Young people who are just starting to have sex are being infected quickly, which suggests that we are way off when it comes to our knowledge of transmission probabilities. Or perhaps not all HIV is transmitted sexually? Either way, we need to find out why transmission rates are so high in Uganda. Otherwise it will not be the only country with stagnating HIV prevalence figures.


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