Sunday, November 17, 2013

Could PrEP be in Competition with Mass Male Circumcision Programs?

[Reposted from the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) Blog]
After years of trying to create a market for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pills, such as Truvada, Big Pharma has turned to their favorite mass marketing ploy: dumping their products in African countries that are starved of health funding. Of course, why wouldn't they dump them in Africa, won't they be paid for with donor funding?
An article in Kenya's The Star entitled "Kenya: 'Wonder Pill' for Risky Sex On the Way" takes the unusual step of raising some difficult questions about PrEP, rather than repeating the Big Pharma press release, despite a shaky introduction. The article continues "Kenyans involved in risky sex behaviours will soon get a 'wonder pill' that can prevent HIV infections. Experts say Truvada, which some call the 'new condom', can reduce chances of catching HIV but there are fears the drug may be misused by the youth".
What, exactly, would constitute misuse of the drug? If it can cut the risk of infection by "up to 75 per cent if one faithfully swallows it daily", what could go wrong? Well, as the article eventually reveals, most people don't swallow drugs daily and most people can not expect 'up to 75%' reduction in risk. That figure is not even from a randomized controlled trial, but from a 'sub-group' study, where the best results are used to exaggerate the level of protection people, in (comparatively) strict trial conditions, may expect. Outside of that sub-group, and outside of drug trial conditions, risk reduction is far lower.
It's odd that such reports talk about studies and proofs for something that they then refer to as a 'wonder pill', a 'new condom' and talk of 'up to 75% protection' (although that's a bit weak compared to the term 'invisible condom' used by those marketing mass male circumcision), and the like. These are PR buzzwords, not scientific findings.
It is said that PrEP programs intend identifying those most at risk of being infected, such as sex workers, intravenous drug users and men who have sex with men. This will be a departure from vilifying these already stigmatized and criminalized groups; it remains to be seen how much donor funding will actually be spent on these groups to provide them with PrEP, given that it has been so difficult in the past to provide them with condoms, injecting equipment and even basic sex and sexuality education.
As the article says, Truvada is expensive, and it has made billions of dollars for Gilead. So it's worth their while pushing as much of the stuff as possible in countries with high HIV prevalence while the patent guarantees that their product will face little competition. By the time the patent expires the likes of Bills Clinton and Gates will surely have set up some program whereby the drugs can continue to be purchased at inflated prices.
The article makes the important point that nearly 1 million HIV positive Kenyans currently need antiroviral drugs just to keep them alive. So why would donors want to provide these same drugs to people who are not yet infected with HIV (aside from an obvious desire to enrich big pharma)?
Oddly enough, a cost effectiveness study makes its estimates using existing levels of male circumcision and antiretroviral therapy. This means that the three multi-billion dollar programs will be in direct competition with each other for funding, and each one will be trying to claim that any drop in HIV incidence is a result of their work. The study also seems to assume far higher levels of success than have been achieved so far. But that's big pharma for you.
While Gilead and other pharmaceuticals can gain a lot from any increase in antiretroviral therapy and PrEP programs, they may not stand to gain from mass male circumcision programs. Their assumption that their PrEP programs will be cost effective only in countries where circumcision levels are low suggests that by the time their product may be approved, the circumcision programs will already need to have failed, some time around 2015.
Worries that people may use PrEP as a kind of recreational drug, so they can dispense with the use of condoms when they are engaging in sex with people who may face a high risk of being HIV positive are not very convincingly addressed; nor are worries that overuse and misuse of antiretrovirals, either for HIV positive people or as PrEP, are brushed aside, with remarks about "government policy" and making the drug available "in form of a package that probably includes HIV testing and other prevention methods".
I seem to remember condoms, circumcision, ABC and various other programs being made available in the form of a package, without that leading to extraordinary results. But it will be interesting to see if PrEP will erode some of the funding currently being made available to, or earmarked for, mass male circumcision programs.
Circumcision programs stand to rake in billions for the big providers, but widespread use of PrEP would be worth far more. It's unlikely that a full scale version of both programs could co-exist; they are not mutually exclusive, but their cost effectiveness is predicated on their being the only or the main program in high HIV prevalence countries.
Whether one program displaces another, or whether they all get funded, the losers will be people in high HIV prevalence African countries, which will continue to suffer from under-funded health and education sectors. They will continue to be a mere 'territory' for sales reps, who will continue to carve things up in ways that should be very familiar to us by now.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

What do Media Censorship and Manipulation, Gates, the BBC and Circumcision Have in Common?

Internews describes itself as an "international non-profit organization whose mission is to empower local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need, the ability to connect and the means to make their voices heard". But one of their much trumpeted programs claims to train journalists about the 'science' behind mass male circumcision programs in Kenya and creating demand for the procedure. There's quite a difference between training journalists on the 'science' of circumcision and creating demand, and the latter generally has little to do with empowerment.
So where is the impartiality in creating demand for mass male circumcision? If people have reservations about circumcision perhaps they have good reasons to. But if the procedure is as wonderful as proponents claim it is, why should such aggressive demand creation be necessary? It is claimed that Internews training "does not prescribe to journalists what to cover" but that their main concern is accuracy. Yet their country director Ida Jooste, perhaps inadvertently, flatly contradicts this claim.
She says that a "critical article was published in Uganda about VMMC quoting a poor-quality study which attacked the credibility" of the often cited Randomised Controlled Trials that took place in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Without citing that 'poor-quality' study, she goes on: "Rather than wait for the Kenyan media to pick up and run the story, Internews proactively convened a round-table with journalists and VMMC experts from the National AIDS and STI Control Program, and other organizations to analyze the story and examine its scientific arguments. As a result, not a single media outlet in Kenya chose to pick up or run the sensational story."
I don't think I'd use the word 'impartial' there. Ensuring that only positive coverage is aired and that negative coverage is quashed is media censorship and control, pure and simple. This is all paid for by the US taxpayer, though it seems the UK may now have something to do with it too.
Internews also 'worked with' (should that be 'worked on'?) civil society and health agencies working in the field of mass male circumcision. When they ran a conference focusing on women's 'involvement' in mass male circumcision, "to their delight" this resulted in 25 news and feature stories. This is pure manipulation, but those involved seem to express no shame, apology or even justification for it. Joost is even cited as saying "We believe that the impact of positive media coverage, or at the very least, the absence of negative coverage, complements and reinforces traditional public campaigns aimed at creating demand and behaviour change".
The above illustrates a concerted effort by a donor (Gates), an international media outlet (the BBC, via its corporate social responsibility wing) and a well-funded US non-profit, to control the Kenyan media. These parties then openly report their successful manipulation and censorship of the media, which has resulted in completely biased coverage of a public health program that is opposed by many of those who have taken the time to inform themselves about it.
What kind of foreign donor funded public health program, only carried out on certain African populations, is so important that it is necessary to manipulate the press so that they only report positive stories and that they don't report negative stories about it? If Kenyan people had any objections to this kind of neo-imperialism, would their press even report it? If the US wanted to impose a mass male circumcision program in the UK, would the BBC also collude with Gates, PEPFAR, CDC, UNAIDS and other parties to make sure objections were not heard? This must be what is meant by 'informed consent'.


Monday, November 4, 2013

The Media in Africa: Beware of Natives

BuzzFeed has photos of 10 signs photographed in South Africa during the apartheid era and it is truly shocking to think that, as the article points out, these signs only became illegal in 1994. But that's why it should be even more shocking that instances of extreme racism and apartheid style thinking should still be so common in the international media today. I have listed a number of examples below, with links to some of the most offensive articles I've read in the past few years.

These are just the tip of the iceberg and a full study would take years. But, in no particular order, let's start with the stories about condom 'recycling' in Kenya and condom 'rental' in Tanzania. Whether the journalists who wrote these stories were bored or desperate is just one question; but what about the media outlet that published them and the public who read them?

One that goes back a few years is the 'story' about starving HIV positive people on antiretroviral drugs eating cow dung in Swaziland. Numerous media outlets echoed that one and it cropped up several times. There was even a story about a woman in Namibia who  claimed to have eaten cow dung but then admitted that she had made it up. She didn't attract anywhere near as much publicity, though.

The ever-popular notion of 'African' sexuality is a trusty tool in the journalist's store of prejudices. Although it has been debunked many times, the media picture of Africans has remained faithful to their apartheid agenda. Africans are truly 'other', that's why there are such massive HIV epidemics in some African countries, isn't it?

The UNAIDS Modes of Transmission analysis, which produces the 'science' behind the media's HIV related racism has also been criticized, but why attack the source of so many stories that everyone seems to enjoy and find so completely inoffensive? UNAIDS even recognizes the true HIV danger in African countries, unsafe healthcare. But they keep that to themselves, publishing advice about avoiding non-UN approved health facilities in a booklet for UN employees, courtesy of the sweetly named 'UN Cares' (about its own employees).

Occasionally a journalist may allude to the use of African participants as research fodder, but people are too used to hearing about the oversexed and feckless African to care very much about such abuse, especially when it can always be dressed up as 'helping'.

It's coming up to about six years since the international media 'discovered' the Tanzanian albino attacks and killings, even though they had been reported in local media for some time. The sloppy and offensive coverage that followed this great 'scoop' for the BBC continues, as do the attacks on persons with albinism. Why revise a story that has won praise and awards? Of what importance are accuracy and insight when opportunities for self-adulation are at stake?

The disgusting US Christian right story of the use of adult pampers as a result of anal sex among men who have sex with men has even done the rounds in some of the local media. We see articles about African countries claiming that homosexuality is 'brought in' by foreigners. But where did the homophobia come from?

There are sometimes instances of the kind of media friendly racism that is 'roundly' condemned, trivial matters that keep readers entertained, much easier to write about than anything that matters. But what the media writes is clearly not yet a source of offence to most people. Perhaps in years to come sites will be able to list some of the shockingly abusive things the mainstream media published about African people, who knows?