Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Reducing Maternal HIV: the Only Acceptable Way of Reducing Pediatric HIV

The received view of HIV in high prevalence countries, especially African countries, is that roughly 80% is transmitted through heterosexual sex and most of the remaining 20% is transmitted from mother to child. So it's not surprising that the HIV hierarchy should target mother to child transmission, or at least talk about doing so. Even if the 80% estimate is way out, a very large number of children are infected during pregnancy, delivery or shortly after birth.

While no one could object to aiming to eliminate mother to child transmission, some might wonder if any effort will be made to prevent HIV in pregnant women. That might seem stupidly obvious but I don't see attempts being made to establish why so many pregnant women become infected with HIV, especially late in their pregnancy, or even shortly after birth.

Of course, transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STI) occur as a result of unprotected sex, as does pregnancy. But many of the women infected with HIV are not also, or not as much infected with more common and easier to transmit STIs. http://www.plusnews.org/report.aspx?ReportID=92664 Perhaps more strikingly, many women who are infected with HIV don't have HIV positive partners. And in a lot of cases, there is no routine follow up and testing of partners in African countries, so we can't always even be sure.

Although there is always the assumption that women who are infected shortly before, during or after their pregnancy are infected by their partner as a result of unprotected sex, there is a good chance that many women are not being infected by their partner, nor even through unprotected sex. UNAIDS' insistance that 80% of transmission in African countries is through heterosexual sex is, after all, not based on evidence. It is, on the whole, an unsupported assumption.

Something even better than preventing mother to child transmission, then, is preventing HIV in mothers. And where sexual partners are not even HIV positive, there is good reason to establish just how women are infected, and then use the resulting data to adjust the 80% figure. HIV transmission through some unknown route is very unlikely to be prevented. And that makes prevention of mother to child transmission a lot more difficult to effect.

In countries such as Libya and Romania, where massive rates of HIV transmission were recognized (and acknowledged) to have occurred through unsafe medical practices, many of the children infected went on to infect their mothers through breastfeeding, as opposed to the other way around. But such modes of transmission need to be recognized (and adknowledged) before they will be investigated, let alone prevented.

Recognizing non-sexual transmission would have another benefit: it would reduce stigma. If HIV positive Africans are told that it is almost certain that they were infected sexually, they will be stigmatized. Especially if it turns out that their partner is not infected. Allowing the possibility that HIV can be transmitted in other ways, which it most certainly can, could save a lot of marriages and lives, even the lives of children at risk of becoming infected.

There is some recognition that the state of public health facilities has direct consequences for the health of the people using those facilities. A lack of drugs, equipment and trained personnel has a negative impact on goals such as reducing child and maternal mortality, HIV transmission, malaria and other diseases.

Apparently, drugs and equipment can be stolen or may never reach health facilities. Sometimes patients have to bring the latex gloves and other equipment that will be used for their care. Perhaps sometimes equipment in short supply is reused, even without proper sterilization. But accepting that it can happen is not enough. It also needs to be established if this is contributing to transmission of diseases, such as HIV, and if so, how big this contribution is.

It's all very well to talk/write about destigmatization. But many of those doing the talking/writing are also doing the stigmatizing. There is plenty of evidence that HIV is not always transmitted sexually in Africa and there is evidence that possible cases of non-sexual transmission need to be investigated. Admitting this would go a long way towards reducing transmission, and also reducing stigmatization.

You will no more reduce stigmatization by saying 'stigma is bad' than you will influence sexual behavior by saying 'unprotected sex is risky'. We have learned that through many years of failing to have much impact on HIV transmission. The issue of stigma is very much in the hands of the people who warn us about how damaging it is, the UN, UNAIDS, WHO, CDC, the World Bank, etc.

The best way to reduce HIV transmission is to be clear about how the virus is being transmitted and not to depend on out of date and inappropriate figures. The best way to reduce mother to child transmission is to reduce the number of mothers being infected. And the best way to reduce stigma is to be honest about HIV transmission: we know that it is not always transmitted sexually and we don't even know how much is transmitted sexually.


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