Thursday, August 6, 2015

UNAIDS Becomes UNAZI - Focus At Last?

UNAIDS reached 20 and became 21 without anyone really noticing. HIV prevalence had peaked in some of the worst affected countries by the time the institution was established, but many epidemics had only just begun.
For example, HIV prevalence in South Africa was very low in 1990, probably less than 1%. Along with several other southern African countries, prevalence rocketed for much of the following 10 to 15 years, eventually making this zone the worst affected in the world.
HIV epidemics tend to concentrate in certain zones, rather than in certain countries. A large area in southern Africa constitutes one of these zones, taking in much of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia and parts of Mozambique and Malawi.
But some zones are not best described by national boundaries. The areas surrounding Lake Victoria, for example, make up another zone, bringing together a large proportion of the HIV positive population of Kenya and Uganda (and, formerly, Tanzania).
Many HIV zones are cities, such as Bujumbura and Nairobi, hotspots, surrounded by relatively low prevalence areas. But some zones are more rural and isolated from big cities, such as the Njombe region of southern Tanzania, where prevalence is higher than anywhere else in the country.
All the northern African countries make up a very low prevalence zone, with most western African countries making up a higher prevalence zone. Central Africa and the western Equatorial area are fairly low prevalence, but eastern Africa used to be the highest prevalence zone, and there are still several million people living with HIV there.
So the United Nations Aids Zones Initiative is, presumably, going to make distinctions between 'Africans', who have all been lumped together by UNAIDS. Rather than referring to, say, Kenya's epidemic, there will be the Lake Victoria Zone, the Mombasa Zone, and so on. After all, prevalence in some parts of the country is lower than in many rich countries, such as Canada.
A country like Tanzania, where 95% of the population is HIV negative (and only about 2% of the population are receiving treatment), will now be able to spend health funding on diseases that affect many people, diseases that have long been ignored. Health services there and in other countries should benefit considerably from the creation of UNAZI.
But the most important change will be in the received view of HIV, the view that it is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sex in 'African' countries (though nowhere else in the world). UNAZI will not be able to claim, as UNAIDS did, that there are certain zones on the continent where heterosexual practices are somehow exceptional!
We can look forward to an immediate reduction in the stigma that goes with branding anyone infected with HIV as promiscuous (or as a helpless victim of promiscuity). Whatever explains the concentration of HIV in these zones will be unrelated to sexual behavior; the explanation is far more likely to relate to unsafe healthcare, even unsafe cosmetic and traditional practices (although the first is the main suspect).
UNAZI will be much more than a change in name, or a change in focus. It will also be an exit strategy, a way of attending (belatedly) to the main causes of HIV epidemics, without admitting that UNAIDS and their chums have been lying for so long, of course. UNAZI will probably only last long enough to 'turn off the tap' that UNAIDS never acknowledged, and then quietly re-merge with WHO.


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