Thursday, April 11, 2019

Antimicrobial Resistance and PrEP: Medical Disasters

Here are two antimicrobial resistance (AMR) scenarios, one rapidly spiraling out of control, and the other (arguably) incipient:

The AMR scenario that is spiraling out of control is described in an article in The New York Times. The development of AMR is blamed on overuse and misuse of cheap antibiotics, usually without prescription. Ever-increasing use and misuse of antibiotics results in ever-increasing development of resistant strains of pathogens.

The NYT article describes the appalling conditions that an estimated one billion people live in; slums where waterborne, foodborne and airborne pathogens thrive. Unable to escape the risks, people try to treat the symptoms with antibiotics, inevitably leading to resistance to most or all available treatments.

The scenario described is a loop: widespread disease leads to overuse of antimicrobials; this leads to development of resistance; people with resistant conditions, if they survive, are taken to healthcare facilities, which also overuse antimicrobials, amplifying resistance and transmission of resistant strains; this loops back to the slum, resulting in an even higher disease burden, and greater levels of resistance.

The loop could be broken by: 1) improving the environment, including water, sanitation, habitation, food, etc and 2) improving conditions in healthcare facilities, infection control, safety, hygiene, etc. This will reduce antimicrobial use and, therefore, resistance.

The approach suggested by the Global AMR R&D Hub, on the other hand, risks speeding up the loop leading to AMR. They aim to “tackle the threat of resistant pathogens” by developing “new antibiotics and treatments against infections.” Producing antimicrobials of ever-increasing power, without addressing 1 and 2, above, only continues the cycle of ever-increasing resistance.

The other scenario is described on websites such as iwantprepnow.co.uk (and prepster.info and others). They advise on the use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), antiretrovirals taken by HIV negative people to reduce the risk of HIV infection. For example, if "you have sex in a variety of situations where condoms are not easily used or not always used", PrEP, if properly used, can reduce risk of infection with HIV by more than 90%.

There are (at least) two problems with this. Firstly, overuse or incorrect use of antiretrovirals can give rise to a resistant strain of HIV developing in an infected person, and that resistant strain can also be transmitted to others.

Secondly, the advice from iwantprepnow.co.uk (and other similar sites, such as PrEPster.info) is aimed at people who frequently have sex without protection from other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Exposing yourself repeatedly to infection with STIs increases the development of resistant strains of, for example, gonorrhea, shigella and Mycoplasma genitalium.

Use of PrEP without condoms also increases transmission of hepatitis C virus: “Incidence of acute hepatitis C virus (HCV) among men who have sex with men who use PrEP in Lyon increased tenfold between 2016 and 2017”. HCV has doubled among HIV positive people.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies spectacularly fail to notice the positive feedback mechanism, whereby improper use of PrEP could increase transmission of STIs and the development of resistance in countries where HIV prevalence is highest, sub-Saharan African countries:

"In areas where there is so much HIV circulating, every sexual encounter is high risk, and widespread PrEP could be a prevention lynchpin." The same article even acknowledges that "High rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) increase the risk of HIV acquisition", without noticing how PrEP will increase STIs and resistance!

According to The WHO, health is a "State of complete physical, mental, and social well being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." In the two AMR scenarios described above, producing stronger antimicrobials and PrEP are examples of medicalization of health, viewing it as merely the absence of disease or infirmity. These kinds of medicalization will radically increase AMR.

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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Cherie Blair and ‘Rape in Africa’ Stereotypes

Cherie Blair was accused of perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes and usurping African voices with her comment that “most African ladies’ first sexual experience is rape”. The English Guardian and NPR both weigh in, with a number of reasons why Blair’s remarks were met with outrage.

Critics of Blair are not wrong in calling her out on these comments. But they don’t go far enough. Yes, Blair should have acknowledged, for example, that rape and gender based violence are faced by women everywhere, not just in African countries. But Blair is only repeating stereotypes she would find throughout the mainstream media, and in a lot of specialized published sources.

Blair is far from being alone in perpetuating and reinforcing stereotypes, such as those of the ‘promiscuous African’, ‘the violent African male’, ‘the widespread exchange of sex for money’, ‘the disempowered African female’, etc. Most of these stereotypes are a lot older than Blair, and date back to colonial times, at least.

Nor have the long-held stereotypes mellowed with age. The bulk of HIV programming (and spending) is based on the very assumption that “sexual transmission [is] the major mode of spread of HIV-1 in Africa”, with some estimates suggesting that sex accounts for 80-90% of all transmissions in high prevalence countries (which are all in sub-Saharan Africa).

On the subject of rape, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) claims that: “Girls and women [in South Africa] also face an epidemic of rape and gender-based violence; many young women express more concerns about getting raped or getting pregnant than getting HIV. At one site we visited, the girls stated that getting raped was their number one fear.”

CSIS was commenting on the fact that in some parts of South Africa, 60% of women are HIV positive. Many new infections are among girls 15-24 years old. However, the entire CSIS article assumes, without ever arguing for it, that all HIV transmission is sexual. This assumption may suggest that stereotypes such as those above are based on empirical findings, rather than being rank prejudice.

Far from being based on research, stereotypes about ‘African’ sexual behavior are flatly contradicted by vast quantities of data collected by Demographic and Health Surveys, every five years, about sexual behavior in African countries. Just select any sub-Saharan country; rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior are low, and there is little or no correlation with HIV prevalence.

Cherie Blair is unlikely to have come across views that diverge from the mainstream prejudices about HIV in SSA, and that challenge those prejudices. But many of those challenges can be found, for example, in a paper by John Potterat, and in the bibliography for that paper. One of the main suspects in high rates of HIV transmission is unsafe healthcare; others are unsafe cosmetic and traditional practices.

If Blair would like to reconsider the sort of stereotypes about sexual behavior and violence also expressed in the CSIS article, this is a good time to do so. Those outraged by her comments about ‘Africans’ and their alleged sexual behavior may wish to avail of the same research. Otherwise they all risk reinforcing and perpetuating stereotypes.

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Thursday, April 4, 2019

Ebola: A Strategy of Misinformation?

In an article in The New England Journal of Medicine entitled ‘An Epidemic of Suspicion — Ebola and Violence in the DRC’ Vinh-Kim Nguyen writes about violent attacks on Ebola treatment units and other health facilities. Nguyen argues that: "Epidemics thrive on fear — when they are frightened, patients flee hospitals, sick people stay away to begin with, and affected communities distrust groups trying to respond to the epidemic."

But there's an important sense in which the opposite may be true. When people fear something that has proven dangerous in the past, avoiding that something may be the only rational response, the only way to avoid the danger. After all, several well-documented epidemics have been shown to thrive on unsafe healthcare. Examples are Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), hepatitis C (HCV), extensively drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR TB) and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

The second ever outbreak of EBV, which occurred in Yambuku (in Zaire) in 1976, was a result of unsafe healthcare: "Peter Piot...concluded that it was inadvertently caused by the Sisters of Yambuku Mission Hospital, who had given unnecessary vitamin injections to pregnant women in their prenatal clinic without sterilizing the needles and syringes."

WHO has recently announced that "The outbreak [of EBD] in Katwa and Butembo health zones [in DRC] is partly being driven by nosocomial [=originating in a hospital] transmission events in private and public health centres. Since 1 December 2018, 86% (125/145) of cases in these areas had visited or worked in a health care facility before or after their onset of illness. Of those, 21% (30/145) reported contact with a health care facility before their onset of illness, suggesting possible nosocomial transmission."

Globally, hepatitis C virus (HCV) has infected an estimated 130 million people.... [T]he wave of increased HCV-related morbidity and mortality that we are now facing is the result of an unprecedented increase in the spread of HCV during the 20th century. Two 20th century events appear to be responsible for this increase; the widespread availability of injectable therapies and the illicit use of injectable drugs. A significant healthcare associated outbreak occurred in  Egypt in the 1970s.

Associated with poor infection control in health facilities, one of the first outbreaks of XDR-TB was discovered in Tugela Ferry Hospital, KZN, South Africa, in 2005. And a significant proportion of healthcare associated infections are resistant to methicillin (ie, MRSA).

Nguyen goes on: “In areas where the epidemic response has not involved security forces...people ask to be vaccinated.”

But rolling out vaccinations in environments where infection control is inadequate (for example, healthcare facilities) might increase the risk of viral strains developing resistance (for example, among healthcare practitioners). Going to a healthcare facility during an outbreak of Ebola may be the worst thing a person can do. When people didn’t go to health facilities during earlier outbreaks, case numbers were limited, and the outbreak didn’t last long.

Nguyen has also highlighted the importance of trust, and the consequences of mistrust of authority, experts and science. But if people are right to question the safety of healthcare facilities, as it would appear from above considerations, how can the trust of people at risk of exposure to ebola and other pathogens be regained?

As long as continued Ebola transmission is blamed on what is depicted as an irrational fear of healthcare and vaccinations, people will stay away from healthcare. Because their fear is far from irrational, it is supported by scholarly research, expert opinion and even communications from the WHO. XDR TB, MRSA, HCV and other outbreaks have been shown to be healthcare associated outbreaks. Healthcare facilities also contribute the lion’s share to anti-microbial resistance (AMR).

Modern healthcare facilities are potentially dangerous places. If patients were informed about the dangers, they would know better how to avoid them, and healthcare facilities would be compelled to address those dangers. Some of the earliest EBV outbreaks occurred when people came together around healthcare facilities, and died out when healthcare facilities closed, often because healthcare staff had been wiped out by Ebola.

Trust in healthcare in developing countries may be regained, slowly, if people are adequately informed about the greatest risks they face, such as poor infection control, lack of hygiene, AMR, etc. Trust will not be regained by dreaming up new misinformation, nor by reinforcing old misinformation.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Guardian: Another Fine Press Excess Mess

If I wrote that health facilities may be contributing to the spread of diseases, such as Ebola (or HIV), I'd be accused of spreading scare stories. But because it's the English Guardian, and it's about sex in an African country, they can publish with impunity a story with the title 'Ebola vaccine offered in exchange for sex, say women in Congo'.

A quick read through the article shows that the title is wholly unmerited. And even the WHO has acknowledged that 86% of people infected with ebola in several hotspots have worked at or visited health centers recently. So the "deep mistrust of health workers" in the DRC may not be as misguided as the Guardian seems to suggest.

The Guardian continues: "Suspicion of authorities and health agencies has further hampered efforts to contain the response". The Guardian tends to avoid suggestions that suspicion of health agencies is ever justified. They prefer to point the finger at gender based violence, sex, bats, women, corpse touchers, anything to avoid the admission that ebola outbreaks cannot possibly be a simple matter of individual behavior, traditional practices, etc.

The article is not an isolated example of the Guardian's fantasies about exotic sexual behavior, occult practices, primitive people, violent men and hapless female and child victims, without power or agency. Another in the series had the title 'Women in sub-Saharan Africa forced into sex to pay hospital bills', based on research that did not warrant anything so salacious.

A third article in the Guardian screams "Girls are literally selling their bodies to get sanitary pads", which is a quote from a researcher more anxious to get publicity for her work than to address some very serious issues in developing countries. Read the research in question and you will not come away with the impressions that the Guardian would have us believe.

And a fourth claims that dating apps in Pakistan (a very low HIV prevalence developing country, where several outbreaks of healthcare associated HIV have been described) are leading to an increase in transmission rates (there is no evidence of any correlation, let alone a causal connection, it’s just speculation).

It's not just the English Guardian that plumbs the depths of tabloid journalism when it comes to 'Africa', nor are all the bizarre, not too credible and very badly researched issues always about sex. For example, some may remember reading articles about people on ARVs eating cow dung because they had no other food, in the BBC and elsewhere.

This story was repeated in a few other countries. Less attention was given to a woman who said she made up the story because she was told she would have to come up with something good in order to get money to buy food.

Other stories that seem belittling and (often obviously) untrue include one about men who have anal sex having to use adult diapers, people renting out used condoms and washing them before renting them out again, assumptions about 'African' sexuality (which can also be found on the BBC site, for example), etc.

Other news outlets that seem unable to resist trivial, belittling and often simply untrue stories about some African countries include IRIN (condom recycling), and Reuters, whose articles, like the BBC's, are often used to back up newspaper articles, or are syndicated in African newspapers.

Aside from being insulting and demeaning, especially to people from African countries and women, these stories deflect attention from extremely serious risks that people in developing countries face, such as unsafe healthcare (which has been shown to contribute to outbreaks of HIV, Ebola, TB, hepatitis C and others), lack of sanitary and reproductive health services and supplies, misuse of medicines and many others.

The consequences of such irresponsible reporting by some of the most trusted news outlets go far beyond the often trivial gossip that purports to be news. If healthcare facilities are unsafe, people should avoid them, especially if authorities (and the press) try to cover up and lie about the risks, at least until healthcare associated outbreaks of deadly conditions are investigated and addressed adequately.

But if unsafe healthcare is deadly, so is the press that lies about it, the press that slings muck at anyone who dares to suggest that ‘professionals’ don't always know best, the press that loves to brand people as 'denialists' if they don't fall in with whatever is currently fashionable in 'expert opinion'.

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