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HIV: A Rich Seam in a Long Abandoned Mine?


Here’s a stomach-churning quote from The Eugenics Review, 1932: “East Africa [has] a heavily syphilized native population”, where tests suggest that “not less than 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. of the general native population” have some kind of sexually transmitted disease.

At that time, several conditions were mistaken for syphilis (or other STIs). For example, yaws and endemic syphilis, neither of which are sexually transmitted. Prejudices about ‘African’ sexual behavior were used to prop up beliefs about prevalence of STIs (and prejudices about STIs proped up beliefs about sexual behavior).

You might think that things would have moved on a bit, what with eugenics no longer having the cache it had in the thirties, right? But the received view of HIV in high prevalence countries is that 80-90% of transmission is a result of sexual behavior, mostly heterosexual behavior.

From this ‘expert’ opinion about ‘Africa’, it is assumed that high HIV prevalence indicates high rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, and that high rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior (or rates that are assumed to be high) indicates high HIV prevalence, or that prevalence will reach high levels in the foreseeable. It’s pretty easy to spot the pig-headed circularity in the argument.

So, how far have we moved on 80 years after the Eugenics Review quote, above? Here’s Catherine Hankins, from the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development (formerly a senior officer in UNAIDS):

As Hankins surmises, in some cultures what you do with your sexual partners over time is different. In the West we tend to be serially monogamous.

In Africa, if you’ve had sex with someone at some point, the door isn’t considered closed on picking up on that relationship again.

“Take a middle-class African businessman. He has had five women – nothing excessive. But the pattern we find is that he has a wife. He also has an on-off affair with an office colleague. He also has what the French call a ‘deuxième bureau’ – a mistress who might have a child. And once a year he goes back to his home village and has sex with his original village sweetheart. Then he gets HIV from a bar girl on a business trip.

“Within a year he may have infected four other women. Now, if I’ve had five sexual partners and catch HIV from the fifth, as a western woman I’m unlikely to return to the other four and infect them!”

You might object that it is unfair to criticize what is clearly just an opinion, however ‘expert’. But policy is based on such opinions, HIV programs are guided by them, enormous amounts of money are spent (entirely in vain) on them. Worse still, the scientific data so assiduously collected shows that Hankins is as wrong as the eugenicists. Ostensibly, at least, Hankins was responding to scientific findings, published in a scientific journal, not to someone’s opinion.

You can look through any Demographic and Health Survey you like, where you will find numerous tables about sexual behavior, family life, people’s ability to recall selective tidbits about HIV, etc, but you will not find a country where a large number of people have lots of sexual partners, or engage in sexual activities considered to be unsafe.

In addition, the circularity mentioned above comes across very clearly in Hankins’ invective: HIV prevalence is high because rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior are high, and we know about sexual behavior because HIV prevalence is high. Hankins clearly believes all these prejudices that she expresses about sexual behavior among ‘Africans’!

Three countries account for about one third of all HIV positive people, globally; South Africa (6.8m), Nigeria (3.2m) and India (2m). The same three countries also accounted for more than half of all aids-related deaths in the past few years. It is notable that prevalence is low in India, at less than 0.3%. This compares to about 3% prevalence in Nigeria, and about 19% in South Africa, more than 60 times higher than in India (and it can rise to well over 100 times higher in certain demographics).

Whatever is behind the huge rates of HIV transmission in these countries, which tend to be concentrated in certain geographical areas and populations, it is likely to be something that is amenable to scrutiny, whether it involves the copious quantities of sex that UNAIDS would claim, or something else, for example, dangerously low standards of hygiene and infection control in some health facilities.

Hankins seems intent on mimicking the media approach to HIV, concentrating on relatively rare and infrequent phenomena (deliberate transmission, ‘virgin cures’, fake healers, ‘traditional’ practices, etc), but failing to notice the appalling conditions in healthcare in some of the areas worst hit by HIV. What is it that is deflecting attention from everyday phenomena, allowing such extreme views to prevail, but failing to reduce infections in the worst hit areas?

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