A young doctor who had been working for 26-28 hours was taking blood from a baby born to a HIV positive mother and accidentally pricked himself with the needle. He reported the incident and got some kind of treatment in the same hospital, but he had to drive himself to another hospital 45 minutes away to get the drugs he needed after being awake for 29 hours. There are several issues here but I'd like to concentrate on the fact that a hospital that had a HIV positive female patient did not have the drugs required to administer post-exposure prophylaxis. Thankfully the doctor in question was OK, but he had to wait six months to have that confirmed.
An accident like this could occur in any country in the world. In this instance it happened in Ireland, where HIV prevalence is very low, around 0.2%. The mother was known to be HIV positive, whereas the HIV status of a significant proportion of people in many countries, perhaps the majority of people in high prevalence countries, would not be known. Needlestick injuries are more common in places where there are fewer staff, less well trained staff and where access to supplies and equipment are poor. But even in countries where conditions for infection control are probably good there can be slips, such as the one described above.
Of course, the fact that conditions for infection control are not good in developing countries does not mean HIV is frequently transmitted through unsafe medical procedures. UNAIDS, WHO and the rest may be right in their claim that only 2-2.5% of HIV transmission is accounted for by unsafe injections, contaminated blood transfusions and other health care risks. But it would be comforting to hear that unexplained HIV outbreaks are investigated. It's not as if there are no such unexplained outbreaks; many infants are found to be HIV positive even though their mother is negative; many adults are infected even though they have no identifiable sexual risk, etc.
One of the oldest high prevalence HIV epidemics in Africa, that in Uganda, should have taught us a lot. It is now obvious that at least some of the rapid drop in prevalence after its peak in the late 80s must have been a result of high death rates. Some of the drop in incidence, the rate of new infections, must have been a result of improvements in infection control practices in health facilities. Very little of the drop in infections can clearly be associated with various 'initiatives' aiming to address sexual behavior, which (much) later became known as ABC (Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms). So why is there now so much emphasis on sexual behavior when we know that many of those approaches have had very little impact, in Uganda or anywhere else?
According to an article from IRIN news, Uganda is targeting 'cheaters'. This is an extremely inept piece of campaigning (and reporting). Knowing that someone is HIV positive is not the same as knowing how they became infected. The data itself even suggests that most of the people considered to be 'cheaters' could not have been infected through sexual behavior because their behavior is classified as low risk. Some of them may have been infected sexually, but it is unlikely that they all were. Yet this group, people who are in long-term relationships, often married, makes up the biggest group of HIV positive people, 43% of all new infections. To establish how they became infected it is first necessary to do some investigating.
Another group of unexplained infections can be found among women of child-bearing age. Some may well be infected sexually, but some may not. It's certainly not a foregone conclusion that all of them must have been infected sexually just because they have had sex. The group that is especially in need of investigation is those who have given birth with the assistance of a health care professional. The 2005 Demographic and Health Survey for Ethiopia shows that HIV prevalence is eight times higher for this group (prevalence is 9.9% for those who received assistance from a health professional and 1.2% for those who gave birth without assistance from a health professional). In addition, HIV prevalence is a lot lower among men. HIV in Ethiopia is very low in rural areas and appears to be higher among employed, better educated, wealthier people who live in urban areas. A more recent Demographic and Health Survey for Ethiopia was published in 2011, but there is no figure cited for this group.
There are so many ways HIV can be transmitted, especially in countries where HIV prevalence is high and most people don't know they are infected. It must also be remembered that most people don't realize that there are significant non-sexual risks; if they don't know about the risks they will not know anything about protecting themselves and their families. There are health care risks, such as operations, vaccinations and dental care, traditional practices, such as circumcision, scarification and traditional medicine and cosmetic risks, such as manicures, pedicures, tattoos and piercing.
Rather than continuing to waste money on sexual behavior interventions, many of which have been largely unsuccessful and all of which fuel the stigma that attaches to HIV infection in African countries, it is time to investigate non-sexual transmission in all its forms. If there is any shortage of evidence that non-sexual HIV transmission makes a significant and underestimated contribution to serious HIV epidemics, that can only be because of a lack of research and a lack of investigation where levels of HIV transmission are unexplained by sexual behavior alone.
Donor countries, including Ireland, are keen to get women in developing countries to use ante-natal care clinics and other health facilities. Far more important than providing people with health care is providing people with safe health care; otherwise we could be increasing risk of transmission of HIV and other infectious diseases rather than reducing risk. Needlestick incidents are probably the least of people's worries in countries like Ethiopia, but only because many people don't attend health facilities most of the time. If our aim is to increase access to health care we had better ensure that health facilities are also safe.
[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission and mass male circumcision, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]