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93% of South African Maternity Wards Unsafe for Mothers and Babies


Despite the constant claim from UNAIDS and the HIV industry that HIV is almost always transmitted through unsafe heterosexual sex in African countries, though nowhere else in the world, it has yet to be demonstrated how appalling conditions in hospitals in high HIV prevalence countries hardly ever result in HIV and other serious diseases being transmitted. After all, relatively unsafe conditions in Western countries have resulted in incidents of healthcare transmitted HIV on numerous occasions. TB has been transmitted in hospitals in South Africa. So why not HIV and other bloodborne diseases?

A recent audit carried out in South African hospitals found that 93% of maternity wards are not safe for mothers or babies. This is no surprise to people who have frequently commented on the fact that HIV prevalence is often higher among women who give birth in health facilities than it is among women who give birth at home. But South Africa has the highest HIV positive population in the world. Do UNAIDS and the HIV industry really want to stick to their contention that these conditions hardly ever result in HIV transmission?

In the past, UNAIDS’ response has been that they would prefer to see people attending health facilities, as it is better for their health. But there is a lot of evidence that health facilities are not safe places. Even the UN itself has issued guidance to their own employees to carry their own medical equipment when working in high HIV prevalence countries, as safety in health facilities can not be guaranteed unless they are ‘UN approved‘. So they can’t have it both ways: if health facilities are unsafe for UN employees, they are unsafe for South Africans.

In the absence of any other explanation, I would suggest that UNAIDS and the HIV industry exhibit a profound form of institutional racism and sexism (because far more women are infected with HIV than men). I could be wrong and the industry may have the best interests of South Africans at heart. But if that’s the case, why is almost all the industry’s literature about sexual behavior and a few other things considered to be illicit or even illegal, such as intravenous drug use, male to male sex and commercial sex work?

HIV transmission through contaminated blood is extremely efficient, which is why intravenous drug use is so dangerous. But the highest use of syringes and other skin piercing instruments is found in health facilities (and also in traditional medicine practices, pharmacies, hairdressers, tattoo parlors and various other contexts to which UNAIDS and the industry appears to be completely blind). Hundreds of millions of injections are given every year; the majority are either unnecessary or the treatment could be administered non-invasively.

Apparently the maternal mortality rate is a massive 310 deaths per 100,000 live births in South Africa. In addition to threatening the lives and health of mothers, these conditions threaten the lives and health of babies and young children too. People are not made aware of the dangers of hospital transmitted infections. And what hospital transmitted infection could be more of a risk in extremely high prevalence areas than HIV? The virus tends to be far more common in built up areas, close to main roads and hospitals. In contrast, it tends to be a lot less common in more rural and isolated areas.

Yes, people need accessible healthcare, but no, not at all costs. If healthcare is unsafe, as it clearly is in South Africa and many other African countries (where conditions can be so bad that most people don’t use health facilities, and HIV prevalence is a lot lower), this will not reduce the transmission of HIV or other diseases. The worst place to go if you want to avoid a transmissible disease is a hospital if conditions there are as bad as they are in most African countries. Indeed, some epidemics, such as ebola, have hospitals as their epicenter, and the epidemic is only stopped when the hospital is closed.

This is not to say that all health facilities are dangerous, though the majority of them seem to be in South Africa. Nor is it to say that all healthcare workers could be doing more harm than good, though a lot seem to be doing harm in South Africa. Congratulations to the country on publishing the report, but it won’t do anyone any good until people are aware of the risks they face, and especially of the fact that HIV is not always transmitted sexually. Some of the worst HIV epidemics were almost definitely started by unsafe healthcare practices. How do we know that these same practices are not still contributing to some of the worst epidemics?

Out of 3,880 hospitals audited, some other findings include:

  • Only 32 of the facilities audited complied with infection prevention and control;
  • Only two facilities could guarantee patients’ safety;
  • Just 161 facilities were clean enough to meet the audit’s tough standards; and
  • Staff attitudes towards patients were awful – just 25% of staff in clinics were found to embody positive and caring attitudes

It’s time to stop treating South Africans and other Africans as if they are somehow different from non-Africans, as if their sexual behavior is almost uniquely dangerous, as if everyone who is HIV positive must have engaged in some kind of illicit behavior. People need to know that hospitals are dangerous places so they can take steps to avoid being infected with HIV, TB, hepatitis or any other disease while in hospital. That means UNAIDS and the HIV industry need to give up their obsession with ‘African’ sexuality, sexual behavior and sexual mores. It’s not all about sex, so let’s act accordingly.

2 responses to “93% of South African Maternity Wards Unsafe for Mothers and Babies

  1. jimgthornton March 30, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    I note that only 50% of facilities were judged as having passed on “infection prevention and control”. The criteria included all sorts of worthy but rather bureaucratic standards, such as minutes for the committee on antibiotic usage were being kept. But they also included this criterion. “3.5.1.1.2. CHECKLIST – Staff are able to explain the procedure by which dirty instruments are sterilised from start to finish.” The local raw data on that criterion should be pasted on the door of any operating, injecting or dressing room.

  2. Simon Collery March 31, 2013 at 3:28 am

    Hi Jim. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about sterilization systems not working and no one even noticing. But most rural places are very short of supplies, electricity, water and basic things like that. I hate to think what sterilization is like. I think the worst places must be the ones where they go ahead with all sorts of procedures that they are not capable of providing safely, as opposed to turning people away or sending them somewhere else.

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