Friday, October 17, 2014
When Peter Piot, the 'Virus Detective Who Discovered Ebola', went to one of the first identified outbreaks in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he reported that "it was clear that the outbreak was closely related to areas served by the local hospital".
Piot says: "The team found that more women than men caught the disease and particularly women between 18 and 30 years old - it turned out that many of the women in this age group were pregnant and many had attended an antenatal clinic at the hospital."
He goes on: "The team then discovered that the women who attended the antenatal clinic all received a routine injection. Each morning, just five syringes would be distributed, the needles would be reused and so the virus was spread between the patients."
What he has to say about people getting ill after attending funerals is repeated in contemporary reports on ebola in West Africa, ad nauseam. But the comments about visits to the hospital, women attending antenatal care and reuse of syringes (and possibly other medical instruments) are no longer mentioned so much.
The CDC does write that ebola "has been characterized by amplification in health care settings and increased risk for health care workers (HCWs), who often do not have access to appropriate personal protective equipment", but they are not as expansive as Piot about exactly what that means on the ground.
There was a whole rash of recent reports about women being more likely to be infected with ebola than men in the current outbreak and a rather narrow set of speculative explanations about why this might be so, one being that women are more likely to be involved in giving care than men.
While women may well more often be the 'caregivers', an article in the New England Journal of Medicine summarizes available data on every reported case. However, it finds that there is very little difference in the numbers of men and women infected, and even the number of men who die from ebola.
There are also far fewer children infected than adults, despite claims that 'women and children' are more likely to be infected than men.
As far as I can see, media speculation into why women may be more likely to be infected than men (because they may have been more likely in some instances) did not question the possibility that women are often more likely to access healthcare, especially when pregnant.
Piot makes this connection during the first investigated ebola epidemic and goes on to connect women's elevated risk with the use of unsterile syringes, not just casual contact in healthcare facilities.
It is to be hoped that clinics are no longer issued with five syringes a day, though clear data about supplies of syringes and needles is hard to come by. But what about other infection control equipment and supplies; especially equipment and supplies in facilities that are experiencing extreme shortages?
What about facilities that are understaffed, where an adequate number of workers may be able to take certain precautions to protect themselves and their patients, but an inadequate number may only be able to think about their own safety, or not even that?
In the case of HIV there are many reasons why a woman might be more likely to be infected through unsafe healthcare. They are expected to attend antenatal care during pregnancy, give birth in a health facility, attend post-natal care, and perhaps several other reasons.
But since western countries, especially the US, have started taking an interest in ebola, they have reinforced efforts to round up people who look in the least bit like they have a fever and sticking them in an already overcrowded health facility, where conditions are appalling.
So if women were more likely to be infected with ebola earlier on in the current epidemic, and in some of the earlier outbreaks in other parts of Africa, perhaps the current approach is influencing the gender balance somewhat. One result possibly being that men are no longer less likely than women to go to a health facility (especially if they are given no option).
Piot says: "The closure of the hospital, the use of quarantine and making sure the community had all the necessary information eventually brought an end to the epidemic - but nearly 300 people died." Most people were quarantined in their own homes, not in an overcrowded and filthy ward.
How things have changed. Far from trying to persuade people to stay in their homes and supporting family members to look after them, US soldiers are helping to send people to what could be the very epicenter of the epidemic.
There are now far more confirmed and suspected ebola cases than there is hospital capacity to care for them. So a strategy that aims to strengthen and make hospitals safer, in combination with strengthening communities to care for people at home might now be the only option left.
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
My last post cited an article from the English Guardian claiming that a two year old boy had been bitten by a fruit bat and thus became 'patient zero' for the current ebola epidemic in West Africa. Since then, the newspaper has rewritten the paragraph to read:
"In December last year, near the village of Meliandou in southern Guinea, two-year-old Emile may have come into contact with one of the fruit bats that fly through west Africa’s skies, often gathering at dusk to roost in trees."
'May have come into contact with' is a lot better than what Clar Ni Chonghaile wrote previously, but the article still confidently claims that this two year old boy is 'patient zero'. An article in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that this confidence is mislpaced:
"Potential reservoirs of [ebola], fruit bats [...] are present in large parts of West Africa. Therefore, it is possible that [ebola] has circulated undetected in this region for some time. The emergence of the virus in Guinea highlights the risk of [ebola] outbreaks in the whole West African subregion."
An infectious disease doctor at CDC goes further: [these] two kids were likely early cases of the outbreak but not the first cases.
My criticism of Ni Chonghaile is not that she is wrong about bats or patient zero, but that she infers some kind of certainty where there are at best hypotheses, and at worst pure speculation. I accept fully that epidemiology is often like that, therefore I object to the use of 'fruit bats' and 'funeral practices' as explanations when these are probably a very small part of the story.
Although it is not my purpose to check 'facts' in the article, I would also say that timing is very important; it matters a great deal when the first suspected case was reported, whether they survived, when the next case was reported, etc. So it is worth pointing out that Ni Chonghaile also gets the dates wrong: the symptoms started for the first suspected case on December 2, not December 26; he died four days later.
But the most important thing that Ni Chonghaile and others writing on the subject fail to discuss is the possibility that unsafe healthcare is likely to have played a considerable role in transmitting ebola. Infection from healthcare worker to patient, as well as from patient to healthcare worker, are very likely, so is infection from patient to patient. What about reused syringes, needles and other equipment? Even reused gloves?
Naturally, the Guardian and other media outlets decry conditions in health facilities in African countries in the abstract. But concrete evidence that unsafe healthcare may have been responsible for transmitting HIV, hepatitis, TB and other diseases in the past, and may still be responsible, doesn't seem to impinge very much on their ostensibly enlightened consciousness.
Eliminating contact with bats, funeral rites and a handful of other exotic phenomena will not, have not, stopped the epidemic. Sure, a bat (or some other animal) may have started the current outbreak, but how has it been sustained since then (whenever that may have happened)? This is not at all about blame, but about tracing how each infection occurred and eliminating that mode of transmission.
These trivial 'certainties' deflect attention from a host of uncertainties, but also from the unspoken suspicion that the current approach itself is not working, that protocols may be incomplete, that the proposed solution may be part of the problem. It should not be beyond a journalist to question things that seem to be relevant, but are currently being ignored. Or perhaps I expect too much from them?
Monday, October 13, 2014
The English Guardian reports: "In December last year, near the village of Meliandou in southern Guinea, two-year-old Emile was bitten by one of the fruit bats that fly through west Africa’s skies, often gathering at dusk to roost in trees." In fact, as the article goes on to make (partially) clear, this is just one hypothesis out of many.
The 'first' person infected in the current outbreak may or may not have come into direct contact with a bat, or some other animal; or the outbreak may have occurred in a health facility, rather than in 'the bush'; the term 'Patient Zero' is suitably dramatic for articles about disasters set in exotic locations, but has distracted attention from how people continue to be infected with ebola.
It's comforting to think that African two year olds are a lot less likely to be bitten by bats now that the scientists, medics and disaster workers have moved in; perhaps African parents will even give up or modify their unsafe bat-hunting habits and take people to hospital if they are thought to be sick, and cease to take vaguely defined risks of being infected at funerals.
Meanwhile, when a healthcare worker in Texas is infected with ebola, being one of the many people who nursed ebola victim Thomas Duncan, a 'breach of protocol' is immediately suspected. Another hypothesis, of course (although it leaves out the possibility that the protocol has failed to take into account some additional mode of transmission).
Compare this to an earlier blog post: when 86 people who have no identifiable risks for the virus are infected with hepatitis C in the US, expensive investigations are carried out into possible breaches of infection control processes in the health facilities that the victims attended.
Yet, when millions of Africans who have no identifiable risks for the virus are infected with HIV, an entire industry develops around the prejudiced view that Africans engage in huge amounts of unsafe sex. No investigations are carried out into conditions in health facilities, although various reports show that infection control processes are seriously lacking.
Of course, there was no ebola protocol in West Africa back in December of last year. But all the more reason, then, to investigate health facilities. What kind of infection control processes were in place then, and are now? Subsequent findings suggest that there are severe shortages in trained personnel, supplies and beds, etc, similar to those noted in other African countries.
Rational explanations in western countries, but metaphors and non-rational backstories in Africa. Spacesuits, because it is an exotic virus from a different planet, brave westerners, but only poor and uneducated Africans.
It just seems a bit suspicious that ebola (and HIV and other diseases) are spread through the ignorance and carelessness of victims in African countries, but through a 'breach of protocol' in the US. Health facilities are such dangerous places in African countries that it is surprising authorities insisted on rounding up those suspected of being infected with ebola and marching them off to a clinic in the first place.
But that approach may now be challenged if this article in the New York Times is at all correct. It says that officials have admitted defeat and that they are going to "help families tend to patients at home". About time too. This could be a major turning point if it is taken to its logical conclusion (if logic if given a role, for a change).
As David Gisselquist has pointed out on this site, people are not being asked about possible infection through through healthcare procedures they may have received in the recent past. Gisselquist has been arguing that people should be warned about healthcare risks, treated with respect and fully supported if they decide to care for ebola patients at home.
Long before the current ebola outbreak occurred it was already common practice for healthcare professionals to say as little as possible about lack of safety in facilities, resulting in HIV, hepatitis, TB and other diseases being transmitted through various procedures, such as injections with reused syringes and needles, unsterilized equipment, reused gloves and other materials. This needs to change, as the ebola outbreak shows (and as the hepatitis and HIV epidemics have been demonstrating for several decades).
In the US there are possible insurance claims, professional negligence inquiries, outbreak investigations, protocols to be rewritten, with some of these phenomena possibly being mentioned in the mainstream media from time to time. Oh, and perhaps some much loved mongrels to be euthanized.
But in Africa the media will continue with its customary approach: treat the people as an exotic, primitive species, to be pitied for their funeral practices and 'bush meat' hunting, their reluctance to go to a hospital (implied to reflect a suspicion of modern or 'western' things or people), etc. There will be lots more 'ebola orphans', two year old Emiles, ministering angels in spacesuits and the like.
It's as if this completely unforseeable 'perfect storm' (a metaphor also favored by the media when writing about HIV) took away Patient Zero, and the rest of the outbreak was down to a combination of other ineluctable processes. But, whereas a perfect storm is a rare combination of factors, unsafe healthcare has been around for decades.
The current ebola outbreak is a symptom of decades of unsafe healthcare; it is nothing like a 'perfect storm'. Two year old Emile, ebola's putative patient zero, is as far from being the index case as Gaëtan Dugas was for the HIV epidemic. Stopping ebola requires an admission that unsafe healthcare spreads disease and allows isolated outbreaks to become pandemics. Apologies if the truth is far too prosaic to sell newspapers.
Friday, October 10, 2014
When I was writing yesterday's blog post I didn't realize that the Amnesty International report I referred to had already been published. It's called 'Struggle for Maternal Health: Barriers to Antenatal Care in South Africa'. It is quite extraordinary that such a lengthy report about maternal health can fail to mention safety, unsafe healthcare, healthcare transmitted infections and the like.
But the report puts the cards on the table on page 21: "Heterosexual sexual intercourse is the main cause of HIV transmission in South Africa." The South African 'National Strategic Plan' is cited in support of this contention, and that document doesn't really support the claim at all, although it's clear that it comes from the usual documents from the usual normative agencies.
Normative agencies such as UNAIDS, WHO and others make guesstimates of the proportion of HIV transmission that can be attributed to male to male sex, intravenous drug use, commercial sex work and various heterosexual 'groups' (who are never very clearly defined). The minute figure that remains, 1-2%, is attributed to healthcare transmission of HIV.
But as yesterday's blog (and other data on the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site and blog) show, there are numerous types of healthcare transmission of HIV, including antenatal care, invasive forms of contraception, blood tests, donations and transfusions, child delivery, injections, surgery and many others.
Amnesty and others go on about stigma, the need for privacy, lack of information and poor public transport for pregnant women. But the stigma is not very surprising: if a HIV negative man constantly hears that the virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex and that his wife is HIV positive, or that his child is, he is not being irrational in believing that his wife has been having sex with someone else.
Rather, he is misinformed. Misinformed by the likes of UNAIDS, WHO and, it seems, Amnesty International. Neither the woman nor the man are told that HIV may have been transmitted through some non-sexual route, perhaps even through unsafe healthcare. This is an especially important mode of transmission in the case of HIV positive infants whose mothers are negative, or HIV positive mothers whose partners are negative.
The closest Amnesty International's report gets to the issue of unsafe healthcare is where they recommend "[paying] particular attention to the need to develop, resource and implement programmes to address the underlying determinants of health that promote safe pregnancies and deliveries." [my italics] But there is little or nothing in the body of the report indicating that unsafe healthcare may be an underlying determinant in much of the morbidity and mortality among women, infants and children.
The report does talk to healthcare users and providers and there are some useful findings. People are not given clear, complete or even accurate information a lot of the time. Healthcare workers often lie or withhold vital information and they may even be ignorant of certain matters themselves.
Antenatal care provision may be lacking in South Africa, but the country has one of the highest figures for women giving birth in a health facility among all the high HIV prevalence African countries. It also has one of the highest figures for deliveries being attended by a skilled health provider.
In other words, high HIV prevalence countries tend to be those with better antenatal care indicators, rather than worse. Amnesty also reports on transport, but transport infrastructure is more developed in SA and other high HIV prevalence countries than it is in East and central Africa, where HIV prevalence is also lower.
Amnesty International did not seem to question these phenomena, despite the fact that they have noticed that HIV prevalence is high in SA, especially in the areas they did their research (KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga), also that maternal morbidity and mortality are much higher among HIV positive than HIV negative women.
Had they questioned the often cited but never demonstrated reflex 'heterosexual intercourse is the main cause of HIV transmission', they might also have tried to find out if health professionals may be hiding behind patient confidentiality and privacy and deliberately avoiding testing partners of HIV positive women because they wouldn't want anyone to suspect that unsafe healthcare can be responsible for transmitting HIV.
These both look like conflicts of interest for healthcare providers, between informing HIV positive people how they or those they care for may have been infected and avoiding the suspicion that unsafe healthcare can result in transmission of HIV, hepatitis, bacterial infections and other pathogens (including TB, ebola and anything else going around in hospitals).
South African's constitution holds that healthcare should be of 'good quality' and that citizens have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Unless health facilities are safe places, increasing access to healthcare may be counterproductive and expose people to avoidable illness and injury. Unless healthcare personnel are enabled to provide safe healthcare, training and retraining them may be similarly counterproductive.
A well funded and experienced human rights NGO such as Amnesty International must go beyond the corporate mythmaking of normative agencies, the views of people constantly bombarded with misinformation and prejudice about HIV transmission, and health professionals who are either ignorant about healthcare transmission or who wish to protect their profession from suspicion of infecting patients.
Thursday, October 9, 2014
Research in Mozambique, Swaziland and Kenya has shown that a substantial proportion of HIV positive infants have HIV negative mothers. These infants are likely to have been infected through unsafe healthcare, perhaps reused syringes, needles or other equipment, lack of adherence to infection control procedures, etc.
Amnesty International has launched a campaign to gather information from the public about maternal deaths in Mpumalanga, South Africa. In particular, they are interested in HIV testing, informed consent and whether consent is given voluntarily.
But what kind of 'information' are Amnesty collecting? The South African Medical Association's Ethical and Human Rights Guidelines on HIV and AIDS makes no mention of non-sexual transmission of HIV whatsoever. Is information about the likely source of an infant's infection not considered to be a vital part of giving informed consent?
Is information about how a mother (or anyone else) may have been infected with HIV not also vital? I would suggest that this information needs to be a standard element in pre- and post-test counselling for everyone, but particularly where the spouse is not HIV positive or where a HIV positive person has no identifiable sexual risks, is not an intravenous drug user, etc.
The Health Professions Council of South Africa's (HPCSA) Guidelines for Good Practice in Medicine, Dentistry and the Medical Sciences has this to say:
"The risk of transmission of HIV infection in the health care area from patient to patient, patient to health care worker, and from health care worker to patient through inoculation of infected blood or other body fluids has been shown scientifically to be very small. Fears, which are not always based on reality, have thus tended to exaggerate the risks out of all proportion."
This paragraph is not backed up by any citations and is expressed in language that is out of place in a set of guidelines for health professions; the word 'scientifically' is especially incongruous. What does it matter how small a risk of healthcare transmission of HIV is when an infant is HIV positive and the mother and their partner are not? Adults, also, could face healthcare and other non-sexual risks, but are these risks assessed by practitioners who have been told that they are 'very small'.
The Mozambique research further shows that some HIV positive mothers were likely to have been infected by their HIV positive infants, that HIV negative mothers with HIV positive infants have not been told how their infants may have been infected, that HIV negative mothers have not been told that they can be infected by their HIV positive infants, that some mothers have been allowed to believe that their infant's HIV positive status is their fault and that some healthcare workers are unable to answer, or even question, these phenomena.
The HPCSA General Ethical Guidelines for the Health Care Professions lists as one of the duties to patients: "Make sure that their personal beliefs do not prejudice their patients’ health care." Personal beliefs about how the patient may have been infected with HIV, even beliefs based on the HSPCA Guidelines, should not preclude an unprejudiced assessment of both sexual and non-sexual exposure to HIV.
Amnesty International would do well to consider the possible conflict between the interests of the healthcare professional and the interests of the patient in regard to providing those being tested for HIV with correct and complete information about how the virus is transmitted. When they have finished in South Africa, they may like to extend their investigation to other African countries.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The satirical site The Onion ran the headline 'Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away' at the end of July. I'm not citing this article because I think it is funny, but because it raises a shocking point very succinctly, one that must have passed through the minds of many over the past few months.
If such an outbreak were to become established in a wealthy country, mainly inhabited by white people, would it still be raging 9 months later? And what efforts would be made to establish the source of the infections?
There is probably no wealthy country precedent to compare with the sort of epidemics that are frequently found in poor countries, often without even attracting the notice of the western world (or not for very long). But a recent article published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings outlines the kind of work that went into investigating the infection of 84 people with hepatitis C (HCV) and another 34 with bacterial infections in US hospitals over a 14 year period. In fact, the paper outlines a whole series of investigations, very impressive work, too.
Six healthcare personnel were identified as a result of these many, lengthy and thorough investigations. That's an average of almost 20 patients infected for each worker. An estimated 30,000 patients were potentially exposed to blood-borne pathogens by these six people. Twenty three different hospitals were involved, in 10 different states. (Naturally, I don't really know if the victims were all white people; the authors are far too polite to mention such detail.)
A 2009 article entitled 'Injection drug use, unsafe medical injections, and HIV in Africa: a systematic review', by Savanna Reid, estimates that 20 million medical injections contaminated with blood from a patient with HIV are administered every year in Africa. Other research by Yves Hutin, entitled 'Use of injections in healthcare settings worldwide, 2000: literature review and regional estimates', estimates that out of the 17 billion injections administered every year globally, 7 billion of them are unsafe.
So where are the HIV and hepatitis outbreak investigations carried out in African countries? They are not listed in PubMed, unless they are called something else, to throw investigators off the scent. Such an investigation was carried out in Pakistan in 2008, but as it confirmed the worst fears of those who believe that unsafe healthcare is a serious risk it appears to have attracted very little attention (and turned into what looks like a cover-up).
So what do we know about unsafe healthcare in African countries, in the absence of such investigations? We know that infants with HIV negative mothers were probably infected through unsafe healthcare in Mozambique, and some of the infants may have gone on to infect their mothers (though it hasn't been seen fit to explain to these mothers how their infants may have been infected, nor even the likely source of their own infection).
We know that people who have received medical injections in Kenya and several other countries are several times more likely to be HIV positive than those who have not. We know that women who have sex only with other women in Namibia and other southern African countries have been infected and that their non-sexual risks have not been investigated. We know that many people found to be infected with HIV in most African countries have said they have not had sex, or that they have not had sex with a HIV positive person, or that they have only engaged in safe sex [earlier version corrected].
In fact, there are numerous instances of HIV outbreaks in African countries, and probably other diseases, which have very likely been caused by unsafe healthcare, reused syringes and other equipment, failure to comply with infection procedures, etc. But none of them have been investigated. Instead, there are vast quantities of data shoved into mathematical 'models', showing that HIV is almost always transmitted through heterosexual behavior in African countries (this being just one example).
Completely untrue, but in accordance with the 'promiscuous African' myth, which has a long history in the medical (and eugenics) literature. The authors of such papers systematically ignore empirical data and fail to investigate outbreaks, they assume that African people themselves are either seriously mistaken about their sexual history or just tell lies, and they go unchallenged by their fellow academics and even peer reviewers, who have the luxury of remaining anonymous, but seemingly prefer to toe the party line.
No doubt these mathematical models are great examples of academic prowess and rigor, that stand up to the highest levels of scrutiny. But they are no substitute for the kind of investigations that have been carried out into what is thought to be a mere tip of the iceberg in hospital transmitted hepatitis and bacterial infections in the US. However brilliant these models are in the field of epidemiology, they are the work of people who care nothing about their fellow human beings in African countries.
Why do these highly qualified academics care so little about poor black people and, apparently, so much about people more likely to be wealthy and white? Is it academic vanity, money, some kind of animalistic competitive instinct, or a combination of these? The challenge to all these clever academics, who can publish their work in the most prestigious journals and be cited in the cream of the western media, is to go to the same lengths investigating and stopping HIV (and ebola, HCV and other diseases) in African countries as they do in parts of the US before the epidemic spreads any further.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Part VI explored the possibility that family planning and Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) services may have been provided in health facilities that would later be deemed unsafe in the context of HIV, involving reuse of syringes and other equipment with inadequate or no sterilization. Many determinants have been identified for STIs throughout the twentieth century, all over the world. They include poverty, poor education, unemployment, ‘promiscuity’
(Meheus, 1974), low prevalence of
contraception and others. STI prevalence tended to be higher among men than
women, high in both urban and rural areas, higher among unmarried than married
people (Hopcraft, 1973) and fairly evenly distributed
around a country such as Kenya. In contrast, HIV is more likely to be
associated with relative wealth, better education, employment, proximity to
roads and other infrastructure, higher use of contraception, urban dwelling,
marriage and others. More women than men are infected, associations with sexual
behavior considered unsafe are often not very strong and prevalence is unevenly
distributed, with a few hotspots in Kenya and many ‘coldspots’. One might
logically conclude that, while HIV can
be transmitted sexually, it is often transmitted in other ways, and that is why
patterns of infection for HIV differ so much from patterns of infection for
However, there are important overlaps in these patterns of STI and HIV infection. For example, HIV prevalence was found to have reached 4% among Nairobi sex workers in 1981 and increased to 61% by 1985; this was established by retrospectively testing stored blood samples
(Piot P, 1987). Females infected with non-HIV STIs in
the past were generally found to be engaged in sex work or had a partner who
had visited a sex worker. Prevalence of STIs was often high in certain
occupational groups, such as transport workers, soldiers and those employed in
extractive industries. As a result, these and other groups had long been
targeted by STI eradication programs; sex workers had also been targeted by
various family planning initiatives. This suggests that those facing high risks
for infection with STIs, or assumed to face high risks, may have had increased non-sexual risk of being infected with
HIV once that virus began to spread (having established itself several decades
before). Although HIV prevalence went up to 81% among sex workers in Nairobi,
it peaked in 1986 and declined steadily for nearly 20 years without any
reasonable explanation being found for this trajectory (Kimani J, 2008). Oddly enough, neither Piot et al nor
Kimani et al consider the very strong possibility that sex workers (and members
of other targeted groups) were systematically infected with HIV through unsafe
healthcare until this risk was eventually recognized (or perhaps changes in
practices reduced the risk of transmission without anyone noticing the impact
this was having on healthcare transmission until much later?).
In the early 80s, no precautions had been taken to prevent the transmission of blood-borne viruses such as HIV in health facilities, as the virus had only just been discovered. Throughout the 80s, as it became apparent that health facility transmission was (or could become) a significant risk, certain measures were taken to improve safety. But the changes would not have been adequate to eliminate transmission altogether. In the 90s, as mentioned in Part III, access to health facilities declined, which may have inadvertently protected many people from infection; HIV incidence in the general population peaked some time in the 90s, at a time when visitor numbers to health facilities would have been falling as a result of increasing poverty, the introduction of ‘user fees’, cuts in service provision and other factors. Sex workers and others thought to be ‘promiscuous’ must have faced a very high risk of being infected with HIV in STI and family planning facilities, although the risk must have decreased considerably some time in the 80s and continued to decline, without ever being completely eliminated.
As for those not considered to be so ‘promiscuous’, they would also have faced high risks in general health facilities. Family planning and STI facilities were often integrated into general healthcare services. Women attending antenatal care (ANC) services and giving birth may have faced higher risk than others (aside from sex workers and other groups targeted by STI and family planning programs). This makes it less surprising that very high HIV rates were found in ANC clinics from the late 80s onwards. HIV prevalence is often highest among women of childbearing age. While these same women may (or may not) be more sexually active that others among whom HIV prevalence is lower, they clearly face increased non-sexual risk of infection with HIV at ANC clinics that are not particularly safe. Family planning services were promoted widely, often aggressively promoted, and not just to those thought to be ‘promiscuous’. Family planning, ANC, contraception and even general health services tend to be more accessible and more utilized in urban areas, by wealthier, better educated people
(Hopcraft, 1973), the very groups found to be more likely
to be infected with HIV. So people with HIV are more likely to have faced
various non-sexual risks, whatever about their sexual risks. Why do UNAIDS and
the HIV industry seem only to consider their sexual risks? Piot et al and
Kimani et al are not exceptional in completely ignoring the possibility of massive
levels of healthcare transmission of HIV; the entire industry has grown out of
denying that unsafe healthcare could have played a part in transmitting a virus
that is a lot less efficiently transmitted through heterosexual sex.
For a long time in Kenya (and other developing countries), family planning had been seen as a means of ‘promoting economic development’, as well as ‘improving maternal and child health’. It wasn’t just highly intrusive and aggressively promoted because it was seen as beneficial to Kenyans and other Africans, but also because it was seen as a means of reducing population growth and averting an eventual global shortage of food, water and vital resources. In the same way that preventing and treating diseases in developing countries was a way of ensuring a ready supply of cheap labor in resource rich countries, family planning was seen as a way of controlling birth rates and population increases beyond what was needed for labor. For many NGOs operating in African countries now, family planning is development; and ‘maternal and child health’ consists of, pretty much, family planning. It is seen as something of a truism that maternal and child deaths can be reduced most readily by reducing fertility rather than, say, improving conditions in hospitals and elsewhere.
A 1973 paper reveals something about conditions in STI clinics in Uganda
For a start, it is pointed out that over 90% of the population lives in rural
areas. Therefore, most of the population’s health needs are catered for by
rural health centers, dispensaries and other minor facilities, staffed mainly
by auxiliaries, rather than by more highly trained professionals. Whether it is
because STIs were common or because the colonial and post-colonial
administrations were exceptionally interested in them, Arya argues that
“venereal disease played an important role in the organization of the medical
services in Uganda in the beginning of this century.” Mulago Hospital, started
in the second decade of the 20th century as an STI clinic, became
and remains the largest referral hospital in the country. This is similar to
Kenya, with specialist STI services being available in Mombasa and Nairobi for
many decades. Health expenditure is low, estimated at around one dollar per
year per person in the mid 70s, but basic health services were provided free of
charge. Arya alludes to the lack of success of most STI programs, in both developing
and rich countries, in bringing these diseases under control; he suggests that
there are other diseases that may be in more urgent need of attention. Arya
also notes that private practitioners provide STI services, mainly in larger
towns, and that the quality of these services is unknown.
Arya published a paper in 1976 about the role of medical auxiliaries in STI control in developing countries
(Arya & Bennett, 1976). In common with some
other authors, Arya and colleague draw attention to the high disease burden
faced by developing countries, coupled with the scarce resources, human,
financial and material. These are particularly acute in rural areas, where most
people live, but where well qualified professionals are reluctant to work. The
authors also feel that STI services are mismanaged to the extent that they may
be causing more problems than they are solving, with high prevalence resulting
from “inadequate treatment, improper treatment or no treatment at all”. They
mention high treatment default rates, find the contribution of private
practitioners to STI control ‘questionable’ and conclude that the overall
quality of services is poor. Diagnoses were unreliable (Burney, 1976), patients were receiving repeated
injections of small doses of penicillin, which increased resistance, etc. Another
paper notes the injection of large volumes of penicillin in some countries,
which is likely to have involved the use of glass syringes and reusable needles
in those days (Meheus, 1974). Contact tracing was
generally beyond the capacity of STI service providers. Arya and Bennett
recommend that medical auxiliaries specialize in STIs and that their training
includes “knowledge of the local socio-cultural factors which largely determine
traditional sexual mores” and note that STI patterns “differ from those in the
western nations and may even vary from one area to another within a country”.
The papers cited above and in Part VI give a few insights into what things were like in terms of STI programs in Kenya and Uganda in the 1970s. Many of those said to be dying of ‘slim disease’ in Uganda in the early 1980s could have been infected with HIV as long as ten years before. If the rate of new infections peaked in the late 1980s, transmission would have been increasing throughout the 1970s, reaching its peak in the late 1970s. Why incidence peaked and then declined is another story. It may have had something to do with the 1978-1979 war with Tanzania (wars tend to be periods of low HIV transmission
(Gisselquist, 2004)), the civil war from 1981-1986 or, much
more likely, a combination of factors. Incidence began to increase a few years
later in Kenya, perhaps in the mid 1970s, reaching a peak in the early 1990s,
as discussed elsewhere. However, incidence started to increase earlier among
certain groups, such as sex workers, transport workers and others who,
significantly, had been targeted by STI eradication programs for decades. Incidence
also would have peaked and begun to decline earlier in these groups.
Conditions in Kenyan health facilities in the 1970s, especially those providing STI and family planning services, were poor. If a blood-borne virus were to establish itself in one or more of these facilities, there would have been plenty of scope for it to be transmitted widely, not just among populations aggressively targeted by various health programs, but also among those requiring other health services, such as antenatal care. The risks of widespread transmission of HIV in health facilities were not recognized for a number of years and many more years had passed before any of these risks were addressed (some have yet to be addressed). But western HIV awareness campaigns were hijacked long ago by various parties who wished to present the virus as one transmitted almost entirely through ‘promiscuity’, and who wished to deny the possibility of transmission in health facilities. Because most of those infected in African countries were heterosexual, a different story about transmission needed to be created. Unfortunately, the same campaigns and strategies were exported from wealthy countries, where transmission was almost entirely a result of male to male sex or intravenous drug use. These campaigns were supremely unsuccessful in Kenya, but this was blamed on the failure of individuals to change their sexual behavior, rather than on any non-sexual mode of transmission.
If HIV transmission in health facilities and through other non-sexual modes continues, the virus will not be eradicated. More poignantly, if health facility transmission had been addressed in the 1980s, when it was realized that this was a very efficient mode of transmission, the virus would never have infected so many people. Some of the worst epidemics in the world only got going in the late 1980s or early 1990s, such as Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa, Swaziland, Mozambique and others. Many of the biggest players (bureaucrats, politicians, publicists, academics, industrialists, etc) currently driving the HIV industry have been in the business since the 1980s. Must Kenyans and other Africans wait till these ‘experts’ are gradually replaced by more enlightened personages? It is to be hoped that new generations of practitioners are not obliged to choose between adopting the deeply engrained institutional prejudices of their profession, or accepting the status of ‘dissident’ or ‘denialist’, unable to publish, teach or even present their views to the industry.
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