The latest South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012 was released recently. Much of the media coverage concentrated on things like the worrying increase in HIV prevalence compared to the last survey, which was carried out in 2008, said to be the combined result of new infections and a big increase in the number of people living longer with HIV as a result of being on antiretroviral therapy.
The report is a useful document, as far as it goes. But there isn’t even a hint that several non-sexual modes of HIV transmission could be contributing to the worst HIV epidemic in the world (in terms of number of people living with HIV, 6.4 million). This is a lot more worrying than the increase in prevalence, because failing to address non-sexual modes of transmission will result in people continuing to be infected through unsafe healthcare, unsafe cosmetic practices and unsafe traditional practices.
Underlining the clear assumption that almost all HIV transmission is a result of unsafe sexual behavior, there is a lot of attention paid to mass male circumcision programs. These are not going so well in South Africa because the majority of circumcised people chose this as a tribal rite, not because they had been hoodwinked into believing that it would save them from various diseases, HIV just being one of them. But the report fails to stress that this means most circumcised males in South Africa faced a far higher risk of being infected with a number of diseases by being circumcised in unsterile conditions.
The report also agonizes over the usual ‘behavioral determinants of HIV’, such as early sexual debut (a minority of males and females become sexually active at a young age, the vast majority don’t), ‘intergenerational’ sex (a minority, about a fifth of females do, most males don’t and this issue has been questioned recently), multiple sexual partners (also a minority do this, more males than females, although HIV prevalence is far higher among females) and condom use (increasing, but probably too low to have much impact on transmission).
However, simply ignoring the possible significance of how people respond to questions is the most arrogant, and probably the most dangerous aspect of the report. There is a list of reasons people gave for believing they would not contract HIV and a few from this list were cited in the media, triumphantly, because some people who thought they would not contract the virus were already infected. Here’s the list, with the number of people giving the response and the percentage:
Reasons for belief one would not contract HIV – number and % of cases
I have never had sex before 21,150, 11.0
I abstain from sex 21,147, 21.3
I am faithful to my partner 21,144, 32.0
I trust my partner 21,149, 22.5
I use condoms 21,146, 19.2
I know my HIV status 21,136, 9.8
I know the status of my partner 21,134, 4.4
I do not have sex with sex workers/prostitutes 21,112, 1.7
My ancestors protect me 21,070, 1.1
God protects me 21,142, 2.5
I am not at risk for HIV 21,151, 8.9
Other 21,142, 10.4
Do those carrying out the survey never, for one moment, suspect that some people might be telling the truth? Some people who have never had sex before are being told for the first time that they are HIV positive, and that it’s almost certain they were infected through some kind of unsafe sex. What efforts are made to find out how they were infected? What about those who are faithful to their partner? Is their partner tested?
The authors of the report seem to relish the term ‘evidence-based’ when referring to various different ‘interventions’ that are expected to reduce HIV transmission; when these interventions appear to fail, those who become infected, or who give inconvenient answers to survey questions, are blamed for their ‘sexual behavior’. If the researchers don’t even check how people become infected, in what way are the interventions evidence-based? If people are not believed when the answers don’t suit the researchers, why should we accept other parts of the report where the answers are in line with what the researchers expect to hear?
Assuming that HIV is almost always transmitted through ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, regardless of all the indications that it is also transmitted through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic or traditional practices, is a betrayal of HIV positive people; it is also a betrayal of those who still risk becoming infected through such routes. These non-sexual routes urgently need to be addressed by investigating and cleaning up health centers, salons and other potential locations, and by warning patients about the dangers of being exposed to the blood and bodily fluids of other people.