Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sometimes Targets of Prejudice Embrace that Very Prejudice Themselves

It's odd sometimes how the targets of a prejudice embrace that very prejudice themselves. UNAIDS' prejudice about HIV almost always being transmitted sexually in African countries is a case in point. Academic articles and press coverage alike, explicitly or tacitly, assume the truth of the prejudice. And people here say 'we' or 'Kenyans' or 'Africans' like sex, have a lot of sex or prefer 'unsafe' sex.

In an article about adult male circumcision in Uganda, carried out with the aim of reducing HIV transmission (from females to males), Robert Kalumba warns that many people, male and female, seem convinced that the operation protects everyone from both infection and transmission. This is not the case, although the warning is nothing new.

But he also claims that "Ugandans love sex a lot" and it's hard to know what that means, aside from being an echo of the oft expressed prejudice. HIV prevalence is low in some parts of Uganda, high in others, low in some demographic groups and high in others. Do all Ugandans love sex? More than non-Ugandans? What about in places where HIV prevalence is low? What about non-Ugandans among whom HIV prevalence is far higher than it is in Uganda, such as Swaziland?

Kalumba also embraces the reflex about HIV being related to 'ignorance', just as others say that HIV is 'driven' by poverty. Neither of these reflexes are borne out by the evidence. HIV rates in high (and medium) prevalence countries are, in general, higher among those who have a higher level of education and are wealthier. And the effect is usually stronger among women than men.

Of course, lack of education and poverty are undesirable. The continued appalling educational, health and economic circumstances in developing countries is repugnant; but not because of their relation or lack of relation to HIV prevalence. Rather, HIV is repugnant because it is a virulent disease, one that spreads most readily among people who already face many other problems, such as low levels of access to adequate health facilities.

What Kalumba should be asking about mass male circumcision campaigns is why so much money and attention is going towards an operation which will only benefit some people, all men, when so many others are in even greater need, more often women than men. In fact, any effect in the field may prove small or even negative.

The United Nations General Assembly Special Sitting (UNGASS) report for Uganda in 2009 also makes one wonder to what extent HIV is sexually transmitted. A quick look at their graphs for HIV on the one hand and other recognized sexually transmitted diseases on the other shows that infection patterns are completely different.

Many would suspect that HIV is only partly sexually transmitted. And if they do, they will recognize that circumcision and other measures that assume the truth of the above mentioned prejudice will never be enough on their own.

While he is at it, Kalumba and others could take a look at various data from the Ugandan Demographic and Health Survey, which show that the highest figures for 'unsafe' sexual behavior are those for men, whereas the highest figures for HIV are for women. If he looks at the Aids Indicator Survey, he will notice many other anomalies, such as the number of people who are infected with HIV when they have never had sex, rarely had sex, only had sex with their partner or rarely had 'unsafe' sex.

The fact that some of the richest and most powerful HIV related institutions agree that HIV is almost always sexually transmitted in Africans does not make it so. And people like Kalumba need to be able to spot a prejudice for what it is. Because if Africans don't reject the prejudice, policy for HIV 'prevention' in Africa will continue to fail. You can't eliminate non-sexual transmission of HIV by targeting people's sexual behavior, especially among those who are not even sexually active.


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