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Hepatitis B Virus and Kenya’s Mass Male Circumcision Programs – Why the Secrecy?

With all the posturing in the recently released Kenya Aids Indicator Survey (2012) about mass male circumcision, whether performed in completely unsterile conditions found in traditional settings or the (hopefully) more sterile settings of health facilities, nothing was mentioned about hepatitis B or C. But an article in the East African describes a piece of research carried out by the Kenya Medical Research Institute into hepatitis B (HBV) which finds that prevalence is increasing.

Amazingly, the article admits that the “modes of transmission [for HBV] are similar to HIV — sexual transmission, contaminated blood products and mother to child transmission”; it is “passed from person to person through bodily fluids such as blood, semen or vaginal fluids”. Following a recent paper on HIV transmission through medical injections, it is very important to stress that HIV, like HBV, can be transmitted through non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices.

The article is equally frank about the lack of research into HBV in Kenya: “scientists say the reason for the rise in HBV in Kenya is still unknown since no scientific study has been done to explain the phenomenon”. In contrast, the HIV industry is a lot less frank about non-sexual HIV transmission, even though the country’s Infection Control Policy admits that “Epidemiological data on HAIs [Healthcare Associated Infection] in Kenya is currently lacking, but the risk for HAIs is high”. Slowly, some of these glaring gaps in research are being filled in, though the HIV industry displays a confidence that seems entirely unjustified.

Importantly, HBV among blood donors in Kenya is rising. Are those donating their blood being exposed to contaminated medical instruments through the blood transfusion services? The Kenyan Blood Transfusion Service is not able to supply enough blood to keep up with current demand, so they would need to make sure that people who donate are not being put at risk of infection with HBV or other blood borne viruses. While no one would want to scare people away from health facilities or from blood donation, keeping risks a secret would surely be a lot worse, wouldn’t it?

The article suggests that the counties finding high rates of HBV are in the Northern parts of Kenya (which often have the lowest HIV rates). It is suggested that “The likely causes of HBV in the region are cultural practices like tattooing, circumcising without using sterilised implements and because the regions are dry and people may not be able to get proper nutrition that ensures strong immunity.” As usual, there is a reluctance to ask if health facilities might also be somewhat responsible; does that mean these facilities will not be investigated, and that conditions, if unsafe, will not be improved?

There are various hepatitis related campaigns, but are WHO and other international health institutions going to ensure that all the people involved in the country’s mass male circumcision programs, will be protected from infection with HBV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) as well? WHO makes vague claims about huge proportions of HBV and HCV being transmitted as a result of unsafe healthcare. But what exactly are the figures for ‘priority’ mass male circumcision countries? Again, it’s likely that healthcare safety is more of a risk in these ‘priority’ countries, some of the poorest countries, with amongst the lowest levels of healthcare spending in the world, than it is in Western countries; why are we only given one, generalized figure, when the viruses must be much more prevalent in some countries than others?

Egypt, as (just one) example of a country with a serious hepatitis problem, has seen the figure for years of life lost (YLL) through HBV increase by 3,930% in the 20 years from 1990 to 2010. Liver cancer has increased by 361% in the same period. Cirrhosis has increased by 40% to become the number three cause of YLL, accounting for 1,127,000 YLLs, or 7.1% of all YLLs. Whether the almost 100% prevalence of circumcision in the country contributes to these figures is another question, but it shows what can happen in a country where there is a very high level of access to healthcare, yet where healthcare safety is not adequately addressed. One of the main reasons HCV prevalence is higher in Egypt than anywhere else in the world is because of schistosomiasis vaccination programs, which were carried out using inadequately sterilized glass syringes.

Reusable syringes and needles are no longer commonly used, but the WHO data shows that there is still a problem with unsafe injection practices. So the last thing high HIV prevalence African countries need is a vastly increased risk of bloodborne virus transmission through unsafe healthcare, whether this involves reuse of injecting equipment or other items that are used to pierce the skin during healthcare procedures. Mass male circumcision programs will likely increase the incidence of unsafe healthcare practices, including injections, and the WHO’s claimed benefits in terms of averted infections may not be enough to outweigh the risks involved.

Even if levels of protection against sexually transmitted HIV outweigh the risks, and this is highly debatable (and debated, outside of the HIV industry), what about the risks of infection with HBV, HCV or other bloodborne pathogens, including HIV, during the circumcision procedure itself? Some recent research has questioned the safety of Kenya’s health facilities. There are clearly more risks than those pushing the circumcision programs would like to admit; so will those who succumb to HIV industry pressure be advised of those risks? I suspect they will not.

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