When I was writing yesterday’s blog post I didn’t realize that the Amnesty International report I referred to had already been published. It’s called ‘Struggle for Maternal Health: Barriers to Antenatal Care in South Africa‘. It is quite extraordinary that such a lengthy report about maternal health can fail to mention safety, unsafe healthcare, healthcare transmitted infections and the like.
But the report puts the cards on the table on page 21: “Heterosexual sexual intercourse is the main cause of HIV transmission in South Africa.” The South African ‘National Strategic Plan’ is cited in support of this contention, and that document doesn’t really support the claim at all, although it’s clear that it comes from the usual documents from the usual normative agencies.
Normative agencies such as UNAIDS, WHO and others make guesstimates of the proportion of HIV transmission that can be attributed to male to male sex, intravenous drug use, commercial sex work and various heterosexual ‘groups’ (who are never very clearly defined). The minute figure that remains, 1-2%, is attributed to healthcare transmission of HIV.
But as yesterday’s blog (and other data on the Don’t Get Stuck With HIV site and blog) show, there are numerous types of healthcare transmission of HIV, including antenatal care, invasive forms of contraception, blood tests, donations and transfusions, child delivery, injections, surgery and many others.
Amnesty and others go on about stigma, the need for privacy, lack of information and poor public transport for pregnant women. But the stigma is not very surprising: if a HIV negative man constantly hears that the virus is primarily transmitted through heterosexual sex and that his wife is HIV positive, or that his child is, he is not being irrational in believing that his wife has been having sex with someone else.
Rather, he is misinformed. Misinformed by the likes of UNAIDS, WHO and, it seems, Amnesty International. Neither the woman nor the man are told that HIV may have been transmitted through some non-sexual route, perhaps even through unsafe healthcare. This is an especially important mode of transmission in the case of HIV positive infants whose mothers are negative, or HIV positive mothers whose partners are negative.
The closest Amnesty International’s report gets to the issue of unsafe healthcare is where they recommend “[paying] particular attention to the need to develop, resource and implement programmes to address the underlying determinants of health that promote safe pregnancies and deliveries.” [my italics] But there is little or nothing in the body of the report indicating that unsafe healthcare may be an underlying determinant in much of the morbidity and mortality among women, infants and children.
The report does talk to healthcare users and providers and there are some useful findings. People are not given clear, complete or even accurate information a lot of the time. Healthcare workers often lie or withhold vital information and they may even be ignorant of certain matters themselves.
Antenatal care provision may be lacking in South Africa, but the country has one of the highest figures for women giving birth in a health facility among all the high HIV prevalence African countries. It also has one of the highest figures for deliveries being attended by a skilled health provider.
In other words, high HIV prevalence countries tend to be those with better antenatal care indicators, rather than worse. Amnesty also reports on transport, but transport infrastructure is more developed in SA and other high HIV prevalence countries than it is in East and central Africa, where HIV prevalence is also lower.
Amnesty International did not seem to question these phenomena, despite the fact that they have noticed that HIV prevalence is high in SA, especially in the areas they did their research (KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga), also that maternal morbidity and mortality are much higher among HIV positive than HIV negative women.
Had they questioned the often cited but never demonstrated reflex ‘heterosexual intercourse is the main cause of HIV transmission’, they might also have tried to find out if health professionals may be hiding behind patient confidentiality and privacy and deliberately avoiding testing partners of HIV positive women because they wouldn’t want anyone to suspect that unsafe healthcare can be responsible for transmitting HIV.
These both look like conflicts of interest for healthcare providers, between informing HIV positive people how they or those they care for may have been infected and avoiding the suspicion that unsafe healthcare can result in transmission of HIV, hepatitis, bacterial infections and other pathogens (including TB, ebola and anything else going around in hospitals).
South African’s constitution holds that healthcare should be of ‘good quality’ and that citizens have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Unless health facilities are safe places, increasing access to healthcare may be counterproductive and expose people to avoidable illness and injury. Unless healthcare personnel are enabled to provide safe healthcare, training and retraining them may be similarly counterproductive.
A well funded and experienced human rights NGO such as Amnesty International must go beyond the corporate mythmaking of normative agencies, the views of people constantly bombarded with misinformation and prejudice about HIV transmission, and health professionals who are either ignorant about healthcare transmission or who wish to protect their profession from suspicion of infecting patients.