Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Is that Guardian Article Really Racist?

Accusations of racism against the two journalists (Samuel Okiror and Hannah Summers) who put their names to an article entitled “'Why are you having sex?': women bear brunt of Uganda's high HIV rate”, and even The Guardian itself, may sound unwarranted, insolent, even arrogant. Is The Guardian guilty of ‘deep racism in patologizing sex’?

No questions are raised about the long held assumption that HIV is ‘all about sex’. The authors seem to make the same assumption themselves. They don’t question people’s right to health information and to health education, which sex education is only a part of. These rights are very clearly stated in the World Medical Association’s Lisbon Declaration on the Rights of the Patient.

What about Uganda’s ban on sex education? The Guardian could have mentioned that, if they feel that this is so relevant to HIV. The tone and content of sex and sex education articles tend to be quite different when they are about sex in a UK or non-African context. Similarly with ‘Aids and HIV’. In the UK, people have a right to privacy, for example, but not in African countries, where a HIV positive diagnosis is assumed to indicate ‘unsafe’ sex, regardless of what the person may report.

The Guardian doesn’t wag its finger at adult men who have sex with adult men and tick them off about their ‘promiscuity’. But finger-wagging at adult men and women in high HIV prevalence countries in parts of Africa is routine, as if they are behaving like disobedient children. The Guardian doesn’t seem to notice these double standards.

The question ‘Why are you having sex? You should be married’? is said to be an instance of discrimination against young females who attempt 'to access HIV prevention services from the health sector'. But the Ugandan health sector is shaped and funded by an international community that insists that HIV is all about sex. The 'stigma' to which the article alludes comes from the HIV community, from the media, from governments and international communities.

Why more young girls than young boys: "Health experts have attributed the disparity to the fact men tend to have more sexual partners, so a man with HIV would spread the infection to more people". Aside from the logistics of that 'expert' opinion, it also seems to be based on the assumption that sex is usually instigated by men, with women usually being unwilling victims, that men are ‘more promiscuous’ than women, etc. Or perhaps those assumptions are totally absent?

While we are questioning differing prevalence rates by gender, what about some of the other figures gathered for Uganda and elsewhere (see Uganda Aids Indicator Survey, 2011 and others)? For example, why are there often large numbers of HIV positive virgins, who were not infected vertically? There have been cases of babies who seroconverted even though their mother were not infected. Some babies have infected their mothers, through breastfeeding. Many HIV positive women have one partner, who is seronegative.

There are so many discrepancies, aside from ones relating to sexual behavior, or appearing to. Why is high HIV prevalence clustered in just a few places in most countries (Kenya is a good example)? Why are rich people more likely than poor people to be infected? Why are employed people more likely to be infected than unemployed people? What difference does religious belief system make?

What is it about location, environment, economic circumstances, employment status and other factors that results in very high HIV prevalence in some countries, but not in others? The stock response from UNAIDS tends to be about differing ‘sexual mores’, differing sexual ‘mixing’ behavior in urban and rural areas, wealth inequalities (which result in more rich people paying for sex and more poor people engaging in paid sex, apparently), etc. It’s as if sexual behavior is the only determinant of HIV exposure and status, uniquely so among diseases, a complete epidemiological anomaly, and only in (some) African countries.

Instead of concentrating on sex alone, perhaps we could examine conditions in health facilities, and differing levels of access to health facilities, differing quality in health facilities, where only those with money, insurance, even transport and good infrastructure, can access? Some people are in a better position to protect themselves from non-sexual exposure to HIV, if only they also had access to accurate health information. Health funding, insurance and access will only improve health if it is high quality and safe healthcare.

The title and overall tone of the Guardian article concludes that 'it's all about sex', before anything else appears. No argument is given for their conclusion. Asia Russell of Health GAP is right to warn that the figures are for prevalence, an indication of how many people are infected with HIV in a population or group. This is not as useful a measure as incidence, which estimates how many people were newly infected with HIV, usually in a period of one year.

But neither prevalence nor incidence figures are relevant to the content of the article because the factoids are either based on opinion, or they are commonly held assumptions (some would say ‘prejudices’). These include assumptions about 'African' sexuality, attitudes towards women, underage sex, intergenerational sex, 'promiscuity', sexual practices, 'African' masculinity, the status of women, etc.

The article is about The Guardian's and its authors' prejudices, not about Uganda, HIV or 'Africans'. Presumably it contributes to, and also concurs with, the prejudices of Guardian readers, what they expect and perhaps enjoy reading about HIV, and sexual behavior in ‘Africa’.
The article does not draw attention to the fact that the health workers (ostensibly, those purveyors of (institutionalized) stigma and discrimination) make no mention of unsafe healthcare, 'informal' or unofficial healthcare, traditional healthcare and similar practices, cosmetic practices (such as tattooing) and others that could, however inadvertently, result in exposure to HIV contaminated blood.

At the end of the article we are told that the Ugandan health ministry has called for “concerted efforts from all stakeholders for scale-up of evidence-based interventions for sustainable HIV epidemic control”. But if those ‘evidence’ based interventions refer to the same prejudices and assumptions as the Guardian article, they will have no impact on transmission rates. What’s the point in scaling up interventions that have failed?

It’s the assumptions that are wrong, not the data. Prevalence rising or falling, incidence rising or falling, female rates higher or lower than male, none of these data can tell us how people are being infected with HIV. There is data suggesting that it’s not all about sex, but this is being ignored or reinterpreted.

The racism of The Guardian has disastrous consequences for people in high HIV prevalence countries. But the realization that HIV is not all about sex can only have positive consequences: people’s exposure can be reduced, perhaps totally eliminated. Accurate health information and health education, to which everyone has a right, can achieve this. Well informed, educated patients and healthcare practitioners can take action, raise awareness and change things for the better.


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Deep Racism of Pathologizing Sex

What are the assumptions behind an article entitled “'Why are you having sex?': women bear brunt of Uganda's high HIV rate”? Firstly, the bulk of HIV transmission is assumed to be a result of ‘unsafe’ heterosexual behavior. Secondly, the number of infected females outnumbers males by almost 2:1, but this is blamed on ‘male sexual behavior’ (white people protecting black women from black men, etc?). Thirdly, all 'Africans' engage in massive amounts of sex. Fourthly, ‘unsafe’ sex is the rule. Fifthly, they start young...the list goes on.

This claptrap is mixed in with pseudo-science: there is no evidence that a majority of HIV transmissions in African countries are a result of ‘unsafe’ heterosexual sex, only a lot of ‘expert’ opinion; indeed, the evidence shows that the majority of transmissions are very unlikely to be a result of ‘unsafe’ sex.

Figures cited for percentages infected, males and females infected, etc, are not incorrect, that’s not why I call them pseudo-science. The sleight of hand lies in the fact that they purport to bear some relation to the levels of sexual activity that would be required for Uganda’s epidemic to be overwhelmingly a result of heterosexual activity.

More than 80,000 Ugandans were said to have been newly infected in 2015. Given estimates that suggest the risk of transmission from a male to a female for penile-vaginal sex is 1/1,250 and the risk for a female to a male is 1/2,500, those 80,000 newly infected people could represent well over 100,000,000 sex acts.

The Guardian further claims that girls between 15 and 24 years old are infected at a rate of 570 per week, reflecting a further assumption, that sexual debut tends to be at an exceptionally young age in Uganda (not true, according to most research). Most young girls have not had hundreds of sexual experiences, even girls in their 20s. Some may have, but most have not.

Most people do not have hundreds of sexual experiences every year. That’s true in every country in the world, even in countries where The Guardian would have us believe they do, countries where HIV prevalence is high. A minority of people may have a lot of sexual experiences, a small minority, according to the copious quantities of data collected by some of the best funded HIV NGOs (hundreds of surveys here).

There are two blatant non sequiturs behind articles like this: one, sexual activity is an indication of HIV prevalence, and two, HIV prevalence is an indication of levels (and perhaps types) of sexual activity. Neither of these are supported by the evidence, only by the assumptions, the prejudices, the deeply held racism of the media and the international HIV industry.

One of the most egregious consequences of these racist views is that a lot of money and effort have been expended on useless ‘abstinence only until marriage’ programs (which could be better referred to as ‘abstinence only until death’). An update to an earlier meta-analysis of such programs concluded that:

“U.S. abstinence-only-until-marriage policies and programs are not effective, violate adolescent rights, stigmatize or exclude many youth, and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes. Adolescent sexual and reproductive health promotion should be based on scientific evidence and understanding, public health principles, and human rights.”

The Guardian article is pure speculation, with a handful of figures thrown in. There is the ever-present ‘expert’ opinion about why more women than men are infected, etc, but the only constant throughout the article is racism, about ‘Africans’, their implied sexual behavior, their attitudes towards women, especially young women...the rightness of the HIV industry and the wrongness of all 'African' people.

If this sort of article is to be believed, all sex is wrong in Africa, it's all 'unsafe', it should all stop. The men are cruel, the women are powerless victims and only non-Africans can diagnose what is going on there, phrenologize the population, profile the groups, strategize their rehabilitation and save them all from damnation ('Shut up and get back in your pigeon-hole, we were right all along!').

The assumption behind this Guardian article is that HIV is almost always heterosexually transmitted in African countries, and the only way this could be true is if ‘Africans’ really are as promiscuous, impervious to reason, cruel and thoughtless to those around them and, frankly, primitive and uncivilized, as the age-old prejudice says they are. As long as it’s about ‘Africans’, you can insinuate these things as often as you want in the mainstream media.

This kind of article can give the impression that apartheid never ended in South Africa. Instead, it spread all over the world, affecting people from African countries and people of African origin. Africans are still apart when it comes to HIV, infected in numbers that are orders of magnitude higher than among non-African people. 'Explanations' of high HIV prevalence tell us that 'Africans' really are different, that non-Africans don't behave the same way when it comes to sex, that there really is something 'other' about heterosexual sex among black people. Pure racism.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

Voice of America: Masters of Clickbait

According to an article in Voice of America “Women and girls as young as 12 from Kenya's countryside are being forced into sex work to support families affected by prolonged drought.” The title of the article calls this ‘survival sex’, a popular media trope. The article goes on to claim that the area in question here, Turkana, “suffers from Kenya's second-highest HIV infection rate”, and attributes this to the IRC (International Rescue Committee).

This popular coupling of sex and HIV, spiced up with mentions of sex tourism, underage girls and the ‘survival’ element, is ubiquitous in the media. Even specialist publications about HIV seem obsessed with sexually transmitted HIV, to the exclusion of infections through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic care and traditional practices, which can all run the risk of coming into contact with blood. This can result in transmission of viruses such as HIV, hepatitis C and various others.

Two questions arise from this VOA article alone: first, what proportion of HIV is transmitted through sex, and what proportion is transmitted through other, non-sexual routes? And second, what is the relationship between food shortages and poverty in general on the one hand, and risky sexual behavior on the other?

In answer to the first question, VOA or the IRC, whoever came up with the figure, is wrong about Turkana having the second highest HIV prevalence in Kenya. The highest prevalence figures can be found around Lake Victoria, with Homa Bay having the highest, at 26%. National prevalence is said to be 5.9%. In comparison, prevalence in Turkana is 4%, and is claimed to have halved in the past few years.

Which leads to the answer to the second question: if poverty and food shortages have been increasing in Turkana for the last few years and HIV prevalence has been dropping, that may suggest that the correlation between the two is negative. Of course, what we really need to know is whether incidence, the percentage of new infections, is increasing or decreasing (along with an indication of how all these people are being infected, of course).

The VOA article goes on to mention sex tourism, ‘survival sex’, child sex, how little money those involved make, how they are exploited and often make no money at all. It’s extraordinary how data collectors can know so much, apparently, and yet still know next to nothing about how people are being infected. Immense amounts of data are regularly collected about sexual behavior in high HIV prevalence countries, always showing that the majority of people have sex, but also showing that only a minority have a lot of sex, a lot of partners, engage in practices considered risky, etc (you’ll find hundreds of reports on the DHS website).

The article mentions another dubious figure, this time from UNICEF: “In 2008, the United Nations Children's Fund estimated that 30 percent of girls in coastal Kenya were forced into prostitution.” This makes it sound like 30% of all girls in coastal areas are forced into prostitution; the claim is probably that 30% of people working in prostitution were forced. The second version is still highly questionable, though typical of UN offices, but the first version is simply not credible.

There is no intention to dispute claims that there are food shortages, poverty, prostitution, HIV and many other severe problems in Kenya and elsewhere. But the desperate attempt to connect HIV with sex, and adding in as many shocking practices as possible to help readers swallow the claim, distracts attention from how people are being infected; it distracts attention from unsafe and insanitary conditions in healthcare facilities (and, probably to a lesser extent, from dangerous cosmetic and traditional practices).

This VOA article is disingenuous in not checking its claims against readily available data. The IRC, like all international NGOs, is anxious to increase funding, and reducing HIV transmission, poverty and food insecurity are all laudable aims. But the sloppy sensationalism in the article also leaves the impression that the claimed concerns about the dangers of ‘survival sex’, child sex tourism and child prostitution are being inflated for fundraising purposes. It also raises important doubts about what proportion of HIV is sexually transmitted.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Missing the Point: Bloodborne HIV in Malawian Prisons

Journalists can never resist anything they interpret as being 'evidence' of sexual practices in prisons. For example, an article about HIV prevalence in a prison in Malawi concludes that it must all have been transmitted sexually, and rants on about homosexuality, with prurient rubbish about whether the distribution of condoms does or does not 'promote' homosexuality.

This article cites an odd finding: "A recent screening exercise conducted by the Malawi Prison Services at Chichiri Prison in the commercial city of Blantyre revealed that out of 1880 inmates tested for syphilis, 46 were diagnosed positive. The exercise also revealed that out of the 1,344 inmates screened for HIV, about 100 were diagnosed positive and 62 of them were newly infected."

That means syphilis prevalence stands at 2.5%, yet HIV prevalence stands at 7.4%. As syphilis is generally easier to transmit sexually than HIV, the fact that HIV prevalence is three times higher may suggest that much of it is not sexually transmitted.

For example, there could be some questionable practices in the prison healthcare facility, including unsafe practices among those administering first aid. There could also be traditional or prison related practices that risk bloodborne transmission of HIV, hepatitis and other conditions, such as tattoos, blood oaths, traditional medicine, etc.

There may even be illicit drugs administered in a way that risks bloodborne transmission of viruses and infections. Indeed some could argue that, since HIV prevalence in this prison is lower than prevalence nationally, which stands at 9%, perhaps there are a lot fewer risks in prisons than in the general population, sexual and non-sexual risks?

Constantly associating HIV with sexual and homosexual practices reinforces the view that HIV is always transmitted through sexual contact of some kind. As a result, people fail to take precautions against non-sexual transmission risks, of which there are many.

The article goes on to bemoan colonial-era laws prohibiting homosexuality, the evident influence of some evangelical churches, social 'conservatives' and other misanthropes. But this misses the point that it is the entire HIV industry that goes to great lengths to distract attention from non-sexually transmitted HIV, through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices.