Sunday, January 22, 2012

Following Pepin, We Have a Duty to Rethink the HIV Orthodoxy

On page 9 of Pepin's book 'The Origins of AIDS', he writes: "The earliest evidence of HIV in East Africa comes from Nairobi in 1980-1 where 1% of patients with STDs and 5% of sex workers were HIV-1 infected. Just three years later, 82% of Nairobi sex workers were HIV-1 infected." Yet Pepin also spends a lot of effort demonstrating that sexual transmission is too inefficient to start an epidemic. If sexual transmission is inefficient, the percentage of HIV positive sex workers did not go from 5% to 82% in three years as a result of sexual transmission alone. You can't have it both ways and that kind of transmission rate suggests an incredible level of efficiency.

Indeed, Pepin's above two sentences, by their very juxtaposition, could suggest that this is an instance of a HIV epidemic being 'kick-started' through unsafe healthcare. An unrecognized virus has infected a small percentage of people, most of whom are being targeted for STD screening, vaccination and treatment. Nobody at the time had any idea that the process of rounding up sex workers and people with STDs (long-distance truckers, soldiers, etc) to receive healthcare services could at the same time be infecting them with HIV. It would not be inconsistent for Pepin to argue that HIV prevalence doubling every few months could not happen through sexual transmission alone; but he doesn't argue this.

Peter Piot, who spent many years steering UNAIDS away from considering any kind of HIV transmission aside from heterosexual sex in Africa, has piously stated that he agrees with Pepin and, rather outrageously, that he has always been interested in nosocomial infections. But he was the author of the paper published in the 1980s that came up with the above figures about sex workers in Nairobi. While heterosexual HIV transmission was rare in most countries, and that was known when Piot was writing, he seemed convinced that it was the norm in Africa. What should have looked like a massive, though unavoidable, nosocomial outbreak of HIV to someone interested in such outbreaks, became 'evidence' that Africans are not like non-Africans.

Now that Pepin has published his findings and people like Piot have declared themselves to be convinced that non-sexually transmitted HIV must have played a substantial role in creating the most serious epidemics in the world, the least he and the entirely misled HIV industry can do is take another look at how the impossible has happened. Nothing we know about HIV could result in HIV prevalence among sex workers going from 5% to 82% in three years through heterosexual transmission alone. That single paper and that single 'finding' has been cited over and over again. All the more reason for a scientist with integrity to question it in the light of Pepin's findings.

In a way, once it was concluded that HIV was heterosexually transmitted, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy about African sexual behavior and HIV: those who had been rounded up in the past for their (often assumed) sexual behavior, again became the culprits. All sorts of 'findings' followed, many of which seem questionable now, but continue to be cited; migrants, casual laborers, bar workers, those who spent a lot of time away from home or traveled a lot, partners of all these groups, etc. High HIV prevalence was found in some (but by no means all) of the groups initially thought likely to be infected. But some of those infected would have been infected through earlier unsafe healthcare because they received the very type of healthcare services that Pepin describes, at a time when no one suspected a blood-borne virus had entered the healthcare system.

I follow Dr David Gisselquist, writing on the Don't Get Stuck With HIV blog, in calling for all scientists working with HIV, not just healthcare professionals, to gather up earlier claims (and perhaps more importantly, assumptions) about sexual transmission of HIV and look at them again in the light of Pepin's findings. We no longer need to accept the sort of racist and sexist assumptions about African sexual behavior that have passed as 'knowledge' about HIV. We are now free to rethink the HIV orthodoxy; in fact, we have a duty to do so.



Petit Poulet said...

The sexual transmission paradigm lacked credibility and played on racial stereotypes. If a man has unprotected intercourse with an HIV-infected female the rate of transmission is 1 in 1000. That is really low. So the models that explained how sexual transmission was driving the epidemic with concurrent partners estimated that each man was having sex with each of his concurrent partners every day. Rather than reject this as preposterous, this fit into a racial stereotype
Westerners were willing to believe. This crazy notion still drives policy today.

Simon said...

Yes, a lot of policy seems to have gone off the rails a long time ago. More recent research showing how off the mark we are seems to be ignored. It could make one wonder if the aim of the HIV industry is to reduce HIV transmission or to maximize profits.