Why do so many HIV-positive children in Africa have HIV-negative mothers? For example, approximately 30% of HIV-positive kids aged 0-11 years have HIV-negative mothers in Mozambique (see pp. 177-181 in: http://www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/AIS8/AIS8.pdf).
Why are so many virgin men and women found with HIV? In the Republic of Congo, for example, virgin women aged 15-49 years have higher HIV prevalence than all women, 4.2% vs 4.1% (see p. 101 in: http://www.measuredhs.com/pubs/pdf/AIS7/AIS7.pdf).
The personal stories behind these statistics are hard to fit with the common view that almost all infections are from sex. Why has there been so little attention and response to Africans with unexplained infections?
THE PURPOSE OF THIS NOTE IS TO INITIATE DEBATE ABOUT WHETHER TO CONTINUE TO IGNORE NON-SEXUAL HIV INFECTIONS IN AFRICA. To do so, this note presents four arguments for AIDS activists, both in Africa and elsewhere, to recognize and respond to HIV from skin-piercing procedures in African health care and cosmetic services.
1. DE-STIGMATIZING HIV/AIDS: Programs for HIV prevention in Africa – including especially foreign-funded programs — focus almost exclusively on sex. With all attention on sex, the emotions, prejudices, and controversies around sex naturally spill over into HIV programs. Thus, it is not only wrong to think that all African HIV comes from sex (see points 3 and 4, below), but also confusing and distracting. Currently, stigma against HIV is so great that most people with unexplained infections keep silent, so as not to be accused of sexual behaviors that some people don’t like. When the public discourse is corrected to recognize blood-borne as well as sexual HIV (see: https://dontgetstuck.wordpress.com), people with HIV from blood risks will be able to speak out without facing stigma compounded by charges they are lying. And they will then be able to contribute to public efforts to make health care and cosmetic services safe.
2. PREVENTING HIV INFECTIONS: Ensuring that medical facilities are safe will not only prevent HIV infection but also the transmission of other blood borne pathogens. Across Africa, HIV prevalence is lower in countries where more people are aware of blood-borne risks for HIV; see: https://dontgetstuck.wordpress.com/africans-aware-of/
3. SEX ALONE CAN’T EXPLAIN AFRICA’s HIV EPIDEMICS: All attempts to explain Africa’s epidemics as exclusively sexual have failed to find anything that is so different about sex in Africa that could account for Africa’s high rates of HIV prevalence. Studies find that Africans have fewer partners and use condoms more than Americans and Europeans.
Circumcision is less common in Europe than Africa. Sex can’t explain how HIV prevalence is lower after long term wars, and among people living further from health clinics. Sex is a risk for HIV because so many Africans are infected – but how are so many infected?
4. EVIDENCE THAT AFRICANS GET HIV FROM SKIN-PIERCING EVENTS: A lot of evidence shows HIV transmission through skin-piercing procedures in Africa. Evidence is both old and new. For example:
(a) In 1985, Project SIDA in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), tested inpatient and outpatient children aged 1-24 months and their mothers for HIV. Seventeen (39%) of 44 HIV-positive children had HIV-negative mothers. Among children with HIV-negative mothers, “medical injections seemed to be the most important risk factor for HIV…” The study team noted, “Injections are often administered in dispensaries which reuse needles and syringes yet may not adequately sterilize them” (Mann et al, Risk factors for human immunodeficiency virus seropositivity among children 1-24 months old in Kinshasa, Zaire. Lancet 1986, ii: 654-7. p. 656.)
(b) Around 1990, WHO’s Global Programme on AIDS coordinated a study in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia to test in-patient children 6-59 months old and their mothers for HIV. Sixty-one (1.1%) of 5,593 children were HIV-positive with HIV-negative mothers; only three had been transfused. WHO experts concluded “the risk of non-perinatally acquired HIV and of patient-to-patient transmission of HIV among children in health care settings is low” (Global Programme on AIDS. 1992-1993 Progress Report. Geneva: WHO, 1993). A similar conclusion would be unthinkable if 1% of inpatient children in London, Boston, or Seoul were found with non-vertical HIV infections.
(c) A study among women in Malawi, 2003-05, found that women who had received hormone injections for birth control were 10.4 times more likely than other women to return with incident HIV infections, and 23 of 27 women with incident infections had received such injections; relative risk was adjusted for age, bacterial vaginosis, and number of sexual partners; reported condom use was uncommon for both women who acquired HIV infection (11.5%) as well as for those who remained HIV-negative (15.1%) (Kumwenda et al. Natural history and risk factors associated with early and established HIV type 1 infection among reproductive-age women in Malawi. Clin Infect Dis 2008; 46: 1913-1920).
(d) Many other studies in Africa link incident HIV to injections, report virgins with HIV, and report kids with HIV but HIV-negative mothers (see Chapters 7, 8, and 9 of Points to Consider, available for free download at: http://sites.google.com/site/davidgisselquist/pointstoconsider).
PROPOSAL: Let’s dialogue about this at these websites – http://aidsperspective.net/blog/, http://hivinkenya.blogspot.com/, http://blogs.poz.com/sean/, https://dontgetstuck.wordpress.com/ http://signpostonline.info/ – about the evidence, what to do, anything else relevant to the issue.
Simon Collery, David Gisselquist