Sunday, July 4, 2010

You've Been Bad: No Sex for a Month

One of the noticeable characteristics of many HIV researchers is that they seem to have a liking for telling people how to run their sex lives, who to have and not to have sex with, when to have sex, where to have sex and what sorts of sex to have. Crucially, they feel the need to tell people in developing countries these things. They certainly don't tell people in rich countries, unless they are men who have sex with men (MSM) or commercial sex workers.

This is because, typically, HIV researchers toe the line on HIV transmission: that in high prevalence countries, it is almost all transmitted through heterosexual sex but in low prevalence countries, it is mainly transmitted by MSM, intravenous drug users and perhaps commercial sex workers. These researchers seem to see themselves as arbiters of good sexual behaviour and they can even threaten to come along and circumcise anyone who misbehaves, as long as they are not already circumcised, of course. If they are circumcised they are considered to be better behaved than the uncircumcised, anyhow.

So two of these intrepid researchers have come up with a plan to have an official 'no sex month'. The thinking behind this is that HIV positive people are most infectious when they have just been infected. At this stage, they will probably not know they have been infected and even if they test, they will probably not receive a positive result. Anyone going through this stage of HIV infection during a no sex month will avoid transmitting the virus, at least for a while. Once they have gone through to the next stage, they will be far less infectious and, hopefully, they will be tested before they reach the third stage, during which they will be highly infectious again.

There are people to whom this proposal will not appeal, specific groups that these researchers will probably want to include. Commercial sex workers will be unlikely to forgo a month of earnings, for example. (And intravenous drug users could be relatively unaffected by the cunning plan.) But the researchers point to the Muslim month of Ramadan, where Muslims abstain from sex during daylight hours. I wonder if they have done any research into whether this has had any impact on HIV transmission, aside from their assumption that because HIV is often lower among Muslims, Ramadan could the the key. And is daytime sex more likely to result in HIV transmission than nighttime sex? Or perhaps daytime sex is seen as more in need of censure.

Well, because we are talking mainly about African countries, it will probably be seen as perfectly reasonable to 'test their hypothesis' on the people. After all, they clearly have too much sex, of the wrong kind and possibly even during the day. Why these researchers see their proposal as a one off is not clear. But they are wrong in saying that it 'does not create additional stigma'.

The behavioural paradigm, which says that HIV is mainly transmitted heterosexually in developing countries, is what causes the main stigma that attaches to HIV. It is because people in developing countries are being told that they have too much sex, and sex of the wrong kind, that HIV is stigmatized, that people are made to feel that they are bad people, who must be censured and punished, if necessary.

More importantly, the behavioural paradigm is completely unfounded. HIV is not mainly transmitted by heterosexual sex in developing countries. The extent to which HIV is transmitted non-sexually is not clear precisely because researchers like the two in question refuse to consider non-sexual transmission as being important enough to research.

If, as a result of this 'experiment', HIV rates are found to have dropped, this will not necessarily mean that sexual transmission will have been cut. Non-sexual transmission, for example, through unsafe medical practices, could also go down during the no sex month. Sex workers and MSM, if they do give up sex, will have less need to visit sexually transmitted infection clinics to receive jabs and contraceptive injections (very popular among sex workers). These are likely routes to HIV infection through unsafe injections. Will the research take such circumstances into consideration?

Perhaps the researchers would like to carry out another experiment on this obliging and convenient population of human beings: perhaps they would like to have a medical safety month. During this month, it would be ensured, not just that every health care worker takes the utmost care during every procedure, but that there are enough health care workers everywhere and all of them have enough equipment so that they don't need to reuse anything or do anything that could put their patients at risk. During this month, Everyone in the country would have access to safe health care, no one would have to resort to some quack wielding a much reused needle and no one in the health care industry would have to take any risks because of lack of resources.

Apart from seeing how this affects HIV transmission, it would be interesting to see what sort of demand there was for treatment and what levels of diseases and other health conditions would be revealed. But if no sex months provide a 'potential strategy', then so do medical safety months. Indeed, medical safety months would have benefits that go far beyond HIV transmission. Perhaps we could have clean water and sanitation months, where people are provided with enough water and sanitation facilities to reduce some of the biggest killers in the developing world. The possibilities are endless, we could have infrastructure months, electricity and lighting months, connectivity months and many other types of month.

The researchers assure us that a no sex month would produce "easily verifiable data with regards to adherence, evidenced in the number of births occurring nine months after the campaign". And I'm sure all the other types of month would also supply vast quantities of data, such as maternal health figures, infant mortality figures, child mortality health figures, nutrition figures, disease mortality figures, more data than you could shake a circumciser's scalpel at. In fact, I don't think you would need to threaten people at all, I really think they would go for these dedicated months without any incentive. They may even demand that such benefits be granted to them all the time, not just for a month.

Even the researchers themselves warm to their theme and suggest that such months could be adapted for different populations "depending on what is driving the epidemic". So, among miners in South Africa they suggest a 'no commercial sex' month. But how about a no mining month? Then they could have a significant impact on the TB epidemic, which is driven by the mining industry and is said to spread hand in hand with HIV.

The researchers conclude that "In hyper-endemic countries policy-makers, populations and politicians are open to new ideas to address the epidemic". But are these researchers open to new ideas? Are UNAIDS and CDC open to new ideas? The biggest new idea, which is only new in the sense that it has been ignored by those who are best placed to apprehend it, is that HIV is not only transmitted sexually, that the behavioural paradigm is wrong. No new discovery needs to be made: these people and institutions simply need to tell the truth. A 'no lies' month from UNAIDS would do more to reduce HIV transmission than all their HIV 'prevention' programs, past, present or future.



Simon said...
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Paula said...

Love your blog... to really impact on HIV infection rates maybe we should have no child marriages month, or no teachers molesting students month, no spouse abuse month, and no drinking month... that'll do it.

Simon said...
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Simon said...

A spokesperson in Swaziland talking about a no sex month rejects suggestions that abstinence would be perceived as moralistic or that it would by hijacked by churches. Of course not, because churches haven't done that in the past, have they?

The very word 'abstinence' stinks of high minded, moralistic sanctimony.

Simon said...
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Simon said...

Thanks Paula, absolutely, I could see people going for no child months. As for teachers molesting students, perhaps just a month of blaming the teacher rather than excluding the child from school, or identifying the culprit. The no drinking month would remind people all over the world how hard it is to get people to drink less, smoke less, drive slower, spend less, use less energy. We're on to a good thing here!

I'm interested in your blog, do you work with the Afrigadget people or are you one of them? I follow their mailings, I'd love to work with biogas but don't have any of the skills or know how. All the best with your projects.