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Unexplained HIV infections in KwaZulu-Natal: Time to investigate?


It’s decades too late to prevent Africa’s HIV epidemics. But it’s not too late to stop them! When will politicians tell ministries of health to investigate unexpected HIV infections?

There are many places to begin. Here’s one. An article in the journal Lancet HIV, August 2018, reported results from a 2014-15 survey in uMgungundlovu district, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.[1] Among women, 44.1% of adults were HIV-positive, including 66.4% of women aged 35-39 years. As for men, 28.0% of adults were infected, including 59.6% of men aged 40-44 years.

Compare this to what happens outside Africa: 0.3% (3 in 1,000) of adults are infected,[2] about half of which are injection drug users and men who have sex with men.

Why do adults in KwaZulu-Natal have hundreds of times more HIV than low risk adults outside Africa? What’s different?

One clue from the survey is that 11.2% of (self-reported) virgin women were HIV-positive, as were 9.0% of (self-reported) virgin men. Another clue is that the percent of young women with HIV increased precipitously: by 34% in 8 years only, from 6.0% at 15-16 years to 40.1% at 23-24 years. The authors want to blame this on sex. But sex can’t explain it: 3/5ths of surveyed women started having sex at age 18 years or later; more than 95% who reported sex in the previous year reported only one partner; and less than 15% lived with a man, making it convenient for them to have frequent sex.

What else could it be? It’s time to take a good look at unexplained HIV (11% of virgin women had unexplained HIV!) to see if such infections came from unsafe healthcare. Beginning in 1988, governments outside Africa have investigated unexplained infections to uncover HIV outbreaks from healthcare with hundreds to thousands of victims.

So far, there have been no such investigations in Africa. But year-by-year, with more HIV testing, more men and women are finding they are HIV positive despite no sex risks. Will increasing public awareness of unexplained infections in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere in Africa translate into public demands to investigate?

Finding the hospital or clinic that infected a particular patient is not enough. Once a facility is suspected to have infected one person, it’s important to invite other patients to come for tests, and to report findings to the public. Finding all the people infected in an outbreak can identify unexpected risks. Openness and honesty is the way to go. Telling the public generates support for safe care. Punishing specific healthcare workers can be a distracting witch hunt – in an outbreak, it’s likely many doctors and nurses infected patients due to ignorance, thinking what they did was safe, not from any intent to harm. Finding and fixing mistakes should be the priority.

References

1. Kharsany ABM, Cawood C, Khanyile D, et al. Community-based HIV prevalence in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: results of a cross-sectional household survey. Lancet HIV 2018; 5: e 427-e437. Abstract available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30021700 (accessed 23 October 2018).

 

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