A recent newspaper article on Burundi refers to the country’s failure to achieve a Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to get “HIV prevalence to zero by 2015”. This is not an MDG and is a confusion with one of UNAIDS’ slogans, which goes ‘zero new infections, zero AIDS-related deaths and zero discrimination’.
The journalist continues “One of the reasons for this [failure] is an unequal access to quality healthcare and prevention services for high-risk groups in Burundi.” One of the consequences of UNAIDS’ insistance that HIV is almost always transmitted through ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior in African countries (but not in non-African countries) is that no one in high prevalence countries wants to be associated with efforts to reduce transmission amongst those who seem to be most likely to be infected and to infect others.
Sex education in schools is almost non-existant, or it’s provided by religious groups whose aim can be to misinform rather than enlighten; sex work is illegal in many African countries; male to male sex is illegal and carries risks that go beyond HIV; harm reduction programs to reduce transmission among intravenous drug users by supplying them with safe injection equipment and other facilities is a political hot potato, with many donors actively discouraging it because it ‘encourages drug use’, etc.
But quality healthcare is denied to the majority of Burundians, not just those who fall into one of UNAIDS’ numerous ‘most at risk’ groups. Indeed, those who have had the best access to healthcare may also be more likely to be HIV positive – urban dwelling, wealthy people with higher levels of education.
Burundi is a very poor country, with the lowest expenditure on health in East Africa, but also the lowest HIV prevalence. At 1.4%, prevalence is only a fraction of that of Swaziland, where the majority of poor, rural dwelling, poorly educated women give birth with the assistance of a skilled healthcare worker. Only around 30% of Burundians from similar backgrounds do so.
The article gives the impression that poverty in some way causes HIV and sex work, because poor people have no option but to have sex for money or food or other benefits, as if poverty were something quite neutral in the absence of HIV and sex work. But poverty may also increase HIV transmission by exposing people to unsafe healthcare, or to the absence of healthcare.
If unsafe healthcare is the only option, people may risk infection with very serious illnesses in health facilities. Yet avoiding them altogether means they risk many other serious illnesses. Those engaging in sex work face terrible occupational risk, but if healthcare facilities are also unsafe, their non-sexual risk for HIV and other diseases may also be increased.
No one working in development would argue that poverty is unimportant, but it doesn’t play exactly the role in HIV transmission claimed by UNAIDS and the HIV industry in general. Poverty denies people access to healthcare altogether, or it condemns them to risking unsafe healthcare. So poverty reduction and greater access to healthcare needs to mean safe healthcare, otherwise access to healthcare and poverty reduction may be dangerously counterproductive.