Friday, April 25, 2014

WHO Supports Circumcision Despite What They Know About Injection Safety in Africa?

[Cross posted from the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site]

The World Health Organization's (WHO) mass male circumcision page states that the operation reduces risk of HIV transmission from females to males (etc), and that they and UNAIDS recommend circumcision as a strategy for HIV prevention, "particularly in settings with high HIV prevalence and low levels of male circumcision". The claimed maximization of "public health benefit" raises many questions, about compatibility with their current victim blaming and individual responsibility strategy, and also about what can be done in areas with high rates of circumcision and high rates of HIV prevalence (or do they have a policy on foreskin reconstruction?).

But the question I'd like to concentrate on is what WHO means by 'settings'. If it refers to high HIV prevalence countries, then they must be aware that most HIV epidemics do not follow national or other geographical or political boundaries. Malawi, as mentioned in a previous blog, can be divided into three clusters, two clusters of low HIV prevalence and one of high prevalence. Only the high prevalence cluster has high rates of circumcision. Rwanda, similarly, has three clusters, two of low prevalence and one of high prevalence. Burundi has only one cluster, and that's the capital city, where most of the country's HIV positive people reside.

Indeed, high HIV prevalence tends to cluster in cities in most African countries, yet the vast majority of people in most high prevalence countries live in rural areas, where prevalence is often low, sometimes very low. So WHO aims to target up to 80% of males, when most of them can not be said in any useful sense to live in 'high HIV prevalence settings'. Although HIV epidemics are heterogenous, within as well as between countries, if high prevalence settings refer to anything at all they refer to areas where access to healthcare facilities is high and levels of safety in healthcare facilities are low (for example).

It gets worse because if you look at Burundi and Rwanda's Demographic and Health surveys (just two examples out of many) you will see that HIV prevalence is higher among Muslim men (mostly circumcised) than men of some of the other (often non-circumcising) denominations; prevalence is lower even among uncircumcised Muslims than circumcised Muslims. Other Demographic and Health Surveys show that HIV prevalence is far higher among Muslim women than among women of other denominations, not just higher than among Muslim men. So, not only does circumcision not always protect men from HIV, it may well have something to do with higher rates of transmission from men to women; this at least merits a bit of investigation, doesn't it?

What does this have to do with WHO's (somewhat vague) data on injection safety and healthcare safety, more broadly? Well, in a document on injection safety success stories, the WHO notes that an estimated 25 billion injections are administered annually and that an estimated 70% of them are unnecessary. The report states that "Unsafe practices and the overuse of injections can cause an estimated 32% of Hepatitis B virus, 40% of Hepatitis C virus and 5% of all new HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infections every single year." "At least 50% of injections were unsafe in 14 of 19 countries...for which data were available" according to another WHO report.

We don't know what levels of injection safety are like in WHO 'priority' countries for mass male circumcision programs (Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe). But we may assume, in the absence of data, that high HIV prevalence countries also tend to have higher rates of HIV transmission through unsafe injections. So what is the range of ates? 10%? 20%? The rate would be very low in many Western countries, so it must be fairly high in at least some high HIV prevalence countries to average at 5%. But if we are not told how high rates are, and for which countries, how can 'priority' countries even weigh the benefits against the risks? How can WHO, for that matter (yet they do claim benefits, up to "3.4 million new HIV infections" to be averted by 2025, not forgetting savings of US$16.5 billion)?

The 20 million figure that WHO recommends to be circumcised only refers to medical circumcisions (and it doesn't include children or infants, not yet anyhow), not to all those non-medical circumcisions carried out in unsterile conditions. The number of non-medical circumcisions would be many tens of millions, perhaps even over one hundred million over the course of these mass male circumcision programs (another 11 years to go). What if even just 5% of them were to be infected with HIV through unsafe practices? They won't be receiving injections, presumably, but one would like to think that WHO approved programs would have higher standards of safety than circumcisions performed in unsterile conditions by non-medically qualified people. Alas, it is difficult to estimate rates of HIV infections through unsafe medical and traditional practices because so little effort has ever been made to collect such data.

WHO and UNAIDS are obsessed with sexual behavior, but reluctant to assess non-sexually transmitted HIV, especially via unsafe injections and unsafe healthcare in general. Yet they are willing to promote mass male circumcision programs to reduce HIV transmission when their own figures suggest that the number of people who risk being infected with HIV through these programs is likely to be far higher than even the most outlandish estimates of infections 'averted'. Far from being a 'distraction' from effective HIV prevention, as some have called it, mass male circumcision programs are likely to transmit several times more infections than they could ever hope to avert.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

South African National HIV Survey Betrays Those Facing Non-Sexual Risks

The latest South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012 was released recently. Much of the media coverage concentrated on things like the worrying increase in HIV prevalence compared to the last survey, which was carried out in 2008, said to be the combined result of new infections and a big increase in the number of people living longer with HIV as a result of being on antiretroviral therapy.

The report is a useful document, as far as it goes. But there isn't even a hint that several non-sexual modes of HIV transmission could be contributing to the worst HIV epidemic in the world (in terms of number of people living with HIV, 6.4 million). This is a lot more worrying than the increase in prevalence, because failing to address non-sexual modes of transmission will result in people continuing to be infected through unsafe healthcare, unsafe cosmetic practices and unsafe traditional practices.

Underlining the clear assumption that almost all HIV transmission is a result of unsafe sexual behavior, there is a lot of attention paid to mass male circumcision programs. These are not going so well in South Africa because the majority of circumcised people chose this as a tribal rite, not because they had been hoodwinked into believing that it would save them from various diseases, HIV just being one of them. But the report fails to stress that this means most circumcised males in South Africa faced a far higher risk of being infected with a number of diseases by being circumcised in unsterile conditions.

The report also agonizes over the usual 'behavioral determinants of HIV', such as early sexual debut (a minority of males and females become sexually active at a young age, the vast majority don't), 'intergenerational' sex (a minority, about a fifth of females do, most males don't and this issue has been questioned recently), multiple sexual partners (also a minority do this, more males than females, although HIV prevalence is far higher among females) and condom use (increasing, but probably too low to have much impact on transmission).

However, simply ignoring the possible significance of how people respond to questions is the most arrogant, and probably the most dangerous aspect of the report. There is a list of reasons people gave for believing they would not contract HIV and a few from this list were cited in the media, triumphantly, because some people who thought they would not contract the virus were already infected. Here's the list, with the number of people giving the response and the percentage:

Reasons for belief one would not contract HIV - number and % of cases

I have never had sex before 21,150, 11.0
I abstain from sex 21,147, 21.3
I am faithful to my partner 21,144, 32.0
I trust my partner 21,149, 22.5
I use condoms 21,146, 19.2
I know my HIV status 21,136, 9.8
I know the status of my partner 21,134, 4.4
I do not have sex with sex workers/prostitutes 21,112, 1.7
My ancestors protect me 21,070, 1.1
God protects me 21,142, 2.5
I am not at risk for HIV 21,151, 8.9
Other 21,142, 10.4

Do those carrying out the survey never, for one moment, suspect that some people might be telling the truth? Some people who have never had sex before are being told for the first time that they are HIV positive, and that it's almost certain they were infected through some kind of unsafe sex. What efforts are made to find out how they were infected? What about those who are faithful to their partner? Is their partner tested?

The authors of the report seem to relish the term 'evidence-based' when referring to various different 'interventions' that are expected to reduce HIV transmission; when these interventions appear to fail, those who become infected, or who give inconvenient answers to survey questions, are blamed for their 'sexual behavior'. If the researchers don't even check how people become infected, in what way are the interventions evidence-based? If people are not believed when the answers don't suit the researchers, why should we accept other parts of the report where the answers are in line with what the researchers expect to hear?

Assuming that HIV is almost always transmitted through 'unsafe' sexual behavior, regardless of all the indications that it is also transmitted through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic or traditional practices, is a betrayal of HIV positive people; it is also a betrayal of those who still risk becoming infected through such routes. These non-sexual routes urgently need to be addressed by investigating and cleaning up health centers, salons and other potential locations, and by warning patients about the dangers of being exposed to the blood and bodily fluids of other people.