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Via Negativa and ‘First do no Harm’


I am in favor of routine vaccination, for my children and for children in my care. I always take children to a doctor when there is something that won’t go away on its own, or that I don’t recognize, and I would do the same for myself. So I am certainly not advocating ‘doing nothing’ as a response to medical problems. I write as a layperson, with an interest in healthcare and development.

But all healthcare must also be safe healthcare; people should be granted their right to know everything they need to know in order to make the best choices for themselves and their dependents, in accordance with the Lisbon Declaration on the Rights of the Patient, along with other instruments relating to patient safety. I feel that people, especially in developing countries, are frequently denied these rights, and that the results of this can be fatal.

In his guest post for this blog, Helmut Jager discusses the example of the infection of millions of Egyptians with hepatitis C (HCV) through unsafe healthcare, resulting in the highest prevalence of the virus in the world. Jager states that the “causes of the infections [globally] mostly are: bad medicine or intravenous drug addiction”.

The ‘bad’ medicine Jager refers to is a program intended to reduce infection with schistosomiasis (bilharzia), caused by a waterborne parasite. This program involved the use of syringes, needles and perhaps other equipment that were not always sterile. Under such conditions bloodborne pathogens, in this case, HCV, can be transmitted from patient to patient.

The medicine Jager describes is ‘bad’ because conditions in healthcare facilities are unsafe, instruments are being reused without adequate sterilization, etc. Rising numbers of people with HCV in the population eventually visiting health facilities meant increasing numbers of healthcare associated transmissions, also called ‘iatrogenic’; a vicious cycle.

Jager is not suggesting that healthcare facilities should do nothing about schistosomiasis (or any other condition) in order to avoid the risk of iatrogenic transmission of HCV or other bloodborne pathogens. He is recommending that unsafe practices be eradicated, practices such as the reuse of injecting and other equipment and processes that involve piercing the skin, or even come in contact with bodily fluids, such as speculums, gloves, etc.

Reducing unnecessary medicine is another of Jager’s recommendations. The WHO estimates that 16 billion injections are administered globally every year. In some countries up to 70% are probably unnecessary. About 37% were said to involve reused injecting equipment. Therefore, reuse of other skin-piercing equipment may also add substantially to the problem.

Jager’s blog is about the high cost of Gilead’s ‘sofosbuvir’ and the damage this does to programs aimed at eradicating the virus. Sofosbuvir has been recommended by the WHO for the treatment of HCV: it is unaffordable for people in poor countries, who make up the bulk of those living with the virus, at risk of suffering serious illness from it, and of dying from it. Jager cites a source reporting that “treatment costs in the US are US$84,000 and in the Netherlands €46,000. The production cost of the drug is estimated not to exceed US$140.”

There are two man-made disasters here: first, there’s the raising of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. The dam was intended to control the flow of the Nile in order to improve irrigation provision and generate hydroelectricity; this damaged ecosystems and led to an increase in schistosoma infestations. The second was the massive outbreak of HCV caused by unsafe healthcare procedures, employed to address the schistosomiasis endemicity, that affected millions of people.

Apparently environmental impact assessments evolved in the 1960s, but it is likely there was something similar before the specific phrase was adopted. After all, it was known that introducing invasive species of fish to Lake Victoria would cause huge and irreversible problems early in the last century; the invasive species were introduced anyway, because certain parties wanted them to be (the colonials wanted to introduce sport fishing to the lake for their enjoyment). The fragility of ecologies has been recognized for a long time.

Whether either or both these disasters could have been avoided 50 or more years ago, strategies to eradicate schistosomiasis sometimes seem to concentrate on a quick technical fix (there’s even a vaccine in development now), such as mass administration of Praziquantel. Praziquantel works, up to a point. It cures patients, and reduces the infected population, which promotes herd immunity and helps interrupt the life cycle of the parasite. But it is less effective in eradicating the parasite when used on its own.

Research in Lake Victoria finds that the population affected by schistosomiasis also needs access to safe drinking and domestic water supplies, reduced contact with contaminated water, adequate waste disposal (which can interrupt the life cycle of the parasite), etc. In other words, the first disaster Jager alludes to, schistosoma infestation in the waterways, affects a much larger population than those who live close to and depend on the waters of the Nile.

This is a larger and more general problem, because all massive infrastructure projects risk destroying ecosystems and environments. And the medical treatment people need once their water supply is infested can be too little; but possibly not too late. It’s too little because those affected will still need access to safe water and sanitation, but some of these issues can be addressed, bearing in mind the counsel of ‘first, do no harm’.

Water and sanitation provision is vital, as is promotion of good health related information. Gilead are unlikely to scale back their profits much unless they are compelled to do so; yet, intervention would not be unprecedented. Unsafe healthcare can be eradicated, much more cheaply and efficiently than mopping up the victims of unsafe healthcare. And unnecessary healthcare can also be reduced, substantially, which will further reduce unsafe healthcare.

In my previous post I speculated that counties in Kenya with very low HIV prevalence, such as Wajir, Garissa and Mandera, may have escaped high levels of transmission through unsafe healthcare by having very low levels of healthcare provision of any kind. I also speculated that high HIV prevalence in counties such as Homa Bay, Kisumu, Siaya and Migori may be a result of greater access to healthcare facilities and health programs whose practices are not particularly safe.

So those four counties on the shores of Lake Victoria, with fishing as one of the most important activities, must have very high rates of intestinal parasites (and other conditions; Eileen Stillwaggon sets out this argument in Aids and the Ecology of Poverty). If use of health facilities is high, the chances of a pathogen such as HIV contaminating medical equipment, which is then reused without adequate sterilization, must also be high.

Where healthcare is unsafe, carrying the risk of exposure to bloodborne pathogens, such as HCV, HIV and others through reuse of skin-piercing instruments, it’s best avoided; via negativa is the best counsel, even if most avoidance is a result of poverty at the moment. There is still the option of ‘doing no harm’, but only if the contribution of unsafe healthcare to HIV epidemics so far is thoroughly investigated. If that’s not done, people would be better off to stay away from healthcare facilities.

2 responses to “Via Negativa and ‘First do no Harm’

  1. Pingback: HIV and Sex: Fallacy of the Single Cause | Don't Get Stuck With HIV

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