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‘African’ Sexuality: Colonial Trope or New Racism?


An article entitled ‘Colonial tropes and HIV/AIDS in Africa: sex, disease and race’ discusses the “idea of Africa as a place where health and general well-being are determined by culturally (and to a degree racially) dictated modes of sexual behaviour that fall well outside of the ‘ordinary’”. It raises some welcome questions about the claim that HIV is almost all caused by heterosexual behavior, but only in ‘Africa’.

The authors continue: “By analysing historical responses to these two pandemics [syphilis and other STIs on the one hand and HIV on the other], we demonstrate an arguably unbroken outsider perception of African sexuality, based largely on colonial-era tropes, that portrays African people as over-sexed, uncontrolled in their appetites, promiscuous, impervious to risk and thus agents of their own misfortune.”

This blog, and a small number of people writing about HIV in African countries, share Flint and Hewett’s disgust for “the promulgation of the European idea of African men as over-sexed and, by implication, predatory and dangerous and African women as over-sexed, promiscuous and shameless”. But the HIV bigwigs do not apologize for institutionalizing such prejudices, and never have.

While Thabo Mbeki was disingenuous to claim that HIV does not cause AIDS, Flint and Hewitt support his claim that “the outsider view of Africans remains one of people who are ‘diseased, corrupt, violent, amoral [and] sexually depraved’”. The HIV industry has a tendency to brand anything they see as questioning their rigid stance as ‘denialist’. Mbeki’s questions remain unanswered, perhaps unanswerable, by an industry that refuses to apply scientific methods in a region where the overwhelming majority of HIV positive people live.

Flint and Hewitt continue: “HIV/AIDS discourse can be seen to have slotted into an existing colonial narrative of the mysterious, unknowable and, above all, different, that was primed to accept the notion of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa as a ‘disease of choice’ (with corresponding notions as to combating this perceived choice) – in remarkable contrast to ideas as to HIV/AIDS epidemiology and prevention outside the continent” [my emphasis].

The industry had to tone down their notions of ‘good AIDS/bad AIDS’ in western countries; fashions change (or ‘are changed’). But it was (almost) all ‘bad AIDS’ in ‘African’ countries, all someone’s own fault, all ‘avoidable’, if people would just follow advice to abstain, be faithful, avoid ‘traditional’ practices, embrace western style healthcare (albeit without western standards of safety, hygiene, funding or staffing).

The attitude towards HIV in ‘African’ countries was especially reinforced by massive sources of funding, such as PEPFAR, “a programme influenced by and largely delegated to faith-based organisations, which engendered it, at times, with something of a crusading missionary outlook. Its emphasis on abstinence and fidelity suggested strongly that each person was broadly responsible for their own individual ‘salvation’: to be infected with HIV implied moral slippage”.

Flint and Hewitt have squeezed a lot into a paper that covers so many issues, spread over a long period. However, I think they have neglected a few things that might have altered their conclusion, considerably. Firstly, they mention (in a footnote) David Gisselquist’s contention that the HIV pandemic could not have been caused by sexual behavior alone, and that unsafe healthcare practices might explain a significant proportion, perhaps even a larger proportion than sexual behavior.

With the realization that the pandemic could not have been caused entirely by ‘African’ sexual behavior, isn’t there an immediate and urgent question about what else may have been involved? Reference is made to the preponderance of epidemiologists and other interested parties with their snouts in the trough, but the sheer weakness of the evidence for this assumed ‘African’ sexual behavior must also be examined. Epidemiologists have made it clear that they are certainly not going to revise their views and consider unsafe healthcare, or anything else.

Secondly, I would also question Flint and Hewett’s claim that the line running from colonial bigotry about sexual behavior in Africa to today’s HIV industry’s institutionalized racist narrative of the HIV pandemic is ‘unbroken’ (and they do say ‘arguably’). The vitriolic hatred shown by people writing about sexually transmitted infections, ‘African’ sexuality and many other subjects was clear enough in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, continuing up to WWII, at least. But, I would argue, things changed.

There was a phase of gradual enlightenment among writers of medical papers in the three or four decades preceding the identification of HIV as the virus responsible for AIDS. Flint and Hewitt even cite an early paper from one of those whose views were based on his own research in African countries, Richard Robert Willcox [obituary]; and there were others who brought greater humanity to ‘colonial’ medicine, which had previously been viewed as just another instrument of control. One example from Willcox will have to suffice for now.

Far from blaming STIs entirely on those who contracted them and transmitted them, Willcox and some of his contemporaries wrote that there are promiscuous people everywhere, and that STIs are mainly found among promiscuous people. But they also made it clear that the majority of people are not promiscuous; several of them might even have admitted that people in Africa were no more likely to be promiscuous than people elsewhere, which is anathema to the HIV industry.

Thirdly, Flint and Hewitt don’t mention that many earlier estimates of diseases, assumed to be sexually transmitted, were distorted by the inability to distinguish non-sexually transmitted yaws and other diseases from syphilis. Figures purporting to show massive levels of endemic syphilis were not just exaggerated by the eugenicists, they were also empirically incorrect. Willcox knew that, as did many of his contemporaries.

Outbreaks of STIs could also be explained by poor treatment programs, insanitary living conditions, labor conditions (especially in mines, armies, etc), resistance to medication, shortages in supplies, unsafe conditions in healthcare facilities, changes in epidemic patterns, lack of skills among personnel involved, shortages of skilled personnel, etc. Outbreaks of HIV could also be explained by such factors, if only more epidemiologists would accept that there is no disease that has a single cause, a cause entirely isolated from all other determinants of health, and that this unprecedented circumstance can only be found in certain African countries (a fifth of ‘Africans’ live in a region where HIV positive people make up 0.06% of the population).

Numerous factors involved in STI epidemics, only a some of which are mentioned above, were recognized by many pre-HIV era writers. Therefore, those blaming disease outbreaks on ‘promiscuity’ and other ‘African’ behaviors, were bigots, not badly informed commentators. Some time after WWII, ‘colonial’ views about ‘African’ sexual behavior, at least in medical literature, became less common. It took a few decades, of course. But by the 1980s, when AIDS was recognized as a syndrome and HIV was identified as the cause, unbigoted views were frequently expressed about STIs and ‘Africans’.

The extreme views of today’s HIV industry are not, I would argue, a clear continuation of colonial bigotry. Following three to four decades of increasing scientific rigor (and decreasing institutional racism), the emerging HIV industry of the 1980s had to develop its own form of racism. Many of the earliest proponents had little or no connection with the colonial past, although they adopted several of its more egregious ‘tropes’, being compatible with some of the extreme political and social attitudes also emerging at the time.

The Story is Father to the Author


The story of ‘How HIV found its way to a remote corner of the Himalayas‘ is related in an article in the English Guardian. It was male economic migrants who went to India and “returned home with a very different legacy to the one [they] anticipated”, infecting their partners, who then had children born with the virus. (But things are now improving because of the actions of the female victims.)

Here’s a comment on an ‘interview’ with one of the males who went to India to work: “Like many other men interviewed in Achham, Sarpa has a well-rehearsed story that explains how he believes he contracted HIV, but it does not involve any sex workers, whom researchers believe are the primary source of migrants’ HIV infections.”

Journalist Kate Hodal doesn’t bother telling us how Sarpa says he was infected, preferring instead to believe the testimony of ‘researchers’. How these researchers know that Sarpa is a liar, along with all the other people they have interviewed (and disbelieved), is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they have some independent explanation or account of the HIV risks that people face in India?

While Sarpa speaks “coolly”, his wife Sita “has had to accept the likelihood [Sarpa] visited Indian brothels”, indicating all this with a shake of her head.

Hodal is clearly something of a psychic, who can know that while Sarpa lies, Sita tells the truth, but without uttering it. Hodal also knows that the opinion of researchers about HIV risks is of more value than the self-reported accounts of people who are infected, or who may become infected.

Meanwhile in Canada, journalist Ashifa Kassam writes about a pop-up restaurant run by HIV positive people. Far from pointing the finger at people with HIV, the article is about ‘challenging stigma’. The words of those interviewed are quoted, and their honesty is not in question.

Population figures, numbers of people living with HIV, prevalence, even the breakdown by gender of those infected, are not vastly different in Canada and Nepal. Although Nepal’s epidemic is usually described as ‘concentrated’, in contrast to Canada’s ‘low-level’ epidemic, the two are remarkably similar in some ways.

In contrast, in Canada, the vast majority of people are infected with HIV through unprotected, receptive anal sex and injecting drug use. But neither of those routes are thought to be so common in Nepal.

However, there is a huge difference in the way HIV in Nepal and Canada are viewed by the media. In Canada, those with HIV are wholeheartedly encouraged to continue their fight against stigma. But in Nepal, the journalist writes something she may have believed before she left her desk: HIV is ‘spread’ by promiscuous men, to unwitting women and children.

HIV positive Canadians can speak for themselves, and are not required to explain or justify their status. But Nepalese men need journalists and researchers to call them out on their lies about how they were infected; and Nepalese women need the same intermediaries to identify them as victims, unable to name the aggressors, or to speculate about how their partners became infected.

HIV and Sex: Fallacy of the Single Cause


The four Kenyan counties of Kisumu, Homa Bay, Siaya and Migori that I mentioned in my last blog post have been in the news following the rerun of the presidential elections on Thursday 26 October. Voting in these four counties was suspended at an early stage and scheduled to resume on Saturday 28, but they did not go ahead.

The result of the presidential elections held in August was disputed in court, hence the rerun. But the opposition leader, Raila Odinga, later called for the elections to be boycotted, and turnout has been very low. The four counties in question are home to the majority of Odinga’s own Luo tribe, and a large proportion of people who might vote for him as president.

Astoundingly, one third of all of Kenya’s 1.6m HIV positive people live in these four counties, even though only about one tenth of Kenyans live there. These counties make up the bulk of the former Nyanza Province, in the southeast. In the blog post before that I wrote about a contrasting area, where 0.2% of HIV positive people live: Mandera, Garissa and Wajir, the former northwestern province, with a population of about 1.6m (3.5% of Kenya’s population).

In the earlier of these two posts I speculated that HIV prevalence in the northeastern counties may have remained low because of the geographical isolation of the area. Few roads go there, infrastructure is underdeveloped, health services are few and far between, and usage of health services tends to be low. Quality of health services is also likely to be low, but less harm can result if most people stay away from facilities.

In the southwest, where infrastructure is a bit better, usage of health services is higher. This means that a lot more people are being exposed to potentially unsafe healthcare. Over 4m people live in 10,200 km2, compared to the 1.6m people in the northeast, an area of 127,300 km2. Population density can be lower than 10/km2 in the northeast and as high as 460/km2 in the southwest.

Variations in sexual behavior don’t correlate very well with variations in HIV prevalence or distribution, so it can’t be the single or simple cause of HIV transmission. UNAIDS and other establishments involved in HIV programming claim that 80-90% of HIV transmission in high prevalence African countries is due to ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior, but they have never been able to demonstrate how such a claim could be true, or even plausible.

However, it could be argued that variation in exposure to potentially unsafe healthcare practices correlates much better with HIV transmission. Both areas are isolated politically, and have been for many decades. Low usage of health facilities and social services (and low availability) seems to be a consequence of the political isolation experienced by the northwest. It is home to many of Kenya’s ethnic Somalis, a piece of land that was formerly part of Somalia.

Down in the southwest, the politically isolated Luo population experienced a certain amount of growth and prosperity after independence, especially during the explosion in the population of Nile Perch in Lake Victoria. People with a bit more money are likely to spend some of that money on healthcare. But if that healthcare is not of high quality, is not safe, this might explain why wealthier people in high prevalence African countries tend to be more likely to be infected with HIV than poorer people.

These two geographical areas have certain things in common: they are overwhelmingly populated by one ethnic group, and have both sought to distance themselves from the rest of Kenya; there has even been talk of complete political separation. But there must also be something very different about the two areas that explains why the HIV burden is over 160 times higher in the southwest than it is in the northeast.

Search for ‘sexual reductionism’ on Google and you’ll come across a discussion about a Vermeer exhibition at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. This will give you some idea of how current HIV epidemiology seems to proceed. Apparently the texts accompanying the paintings treat every detail of the art works as being about sex.

For UNAIDS, variation in HIV prevalence is all about sex: poor people sell sex, rich people buy sex, as do employed people, women are more vulnerable to sexual exposure than men, men are more promiscuous, sexual mores are different in Muslim communities, etc. But an alternative explanation is that variation in access to potentially unsafe healthcare facilities can better account for variation in HIV prevalence within and between geographical areas.

The history of the isolation of the southwest and northeast counties of Kenya from much of the rest of the country, political, geographical, ethnic and other forms of separation, is a long and complex one. But so too is the history of the HIV epidemic, from its origins in equatorial Africa to its global spread, and the multiple causal factors that resulted in hyperendemic levels in some countries (and within some countries), but low levels in others.

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.

Via Negativa: the way to low HIV prevalence?


Wajir is a city and county in Kenya’s former North Eastern Province. From a HIV perspective, the county stands out for having the lowest prevalence of all Kenya’s 47 counties, currently estimated at 0.4%. The next highest counties are Mandera (0.8%) and Garissa (0.9%). Wajir, Mandera and Garissa make up what was the province, formerly a part of Jubaland, in Southern Somalia.

Homa Bay is a town and county in the south west, formerly part of Nyanza Province, and the number one county for HIV prevalence, 26%. Indeed, the only counties with prevalence above 10% are Siaya (24.8%), Kisumu (19.9%), Migori (14.3%) and Homa Bay, which (along with Kisii and Nyamira) made up Nyanza. That accounts for one third of all HIV positive people in Kenya.

The question of why HIV prevalence is so high in certain parts of Kenya is usually answered, implicitly or explicitly, with half baked notions about ‘African’ sexual behavior, ‘African’ mores, ‘traditions’, sexual practices, ‘unsafe’ sex, promiscuity. In a word: sex. It’s all about sex, and in the worst hit counties experts have persuaded the US to part with hundreds of millions of dollars for mass male circumcision programs.

A lot less seems to be written about the extremely low HIV prevalence found in the north east. Look up Mandera, Garissa or Wajir on PubMed and you will only come across just over 300 papers altogether, compared to thousands for other locations (and almost 50,000 for Kenya as a whole). But it would be interesting to know how HIV prevalence has remained as low as in many western countries in the north west of Kenya, yet it has risen as high as the worst hit countries in southern Africa in the south west of Kenya.

Sex happens in north eastern counties too. In fact, condom use is generally lower in these counties. Polygamy is more common, as are intergenerational sex and marriage, phenomena the HIV industry sometimes insists are risks for HIV transmission. Knowledge about HIV transmission and how to avoid it tends to be lower in these counties, too. Birth rates are higher than in other parts of the country.

Circumcision is said to be widespread in a number of counties, not just in Wajir (and Mandera and Garissa) but also, for example, in Kilifi. But HIV prevalence in Kilifi is a lot higher, at 4.5%. The populations are predominantly Muslim in both counties, so circumcision is not likely to be the full explanation, nor is religion. There are commercial sex workers and men who have sex with men in every county, with no evidence that these practices are less common in low prevalence counties.

The north eastern counties are, in fact, very different from the rest of Kenya. Kenya was divided up on ethnic lines by the British, which is why the territory once called the ‘Northern Frontier District’ became one province: it was, and still is, populated by ethnic Somalis. They are geographically isolated, in the sense that there are few major roads. Much of the north of Kenya is arid and sparsely populated. Even the Somalis who live elsewhere in Kenya, such as in Nairobi, tend to live in predominantly Somali suburbs.

A similar kind of isolation, albeit on a much larger scale, can be found in northern Africa. The Sahara is sparsely populated and there are few major roads traversing it. HIV prevalence is low in all North African countries. In fact, HIV arrived relatively late in North Africa, and analysis of the common subtypes there suggest that the epidemic spread to a large extent from southern Europe, and to a lesser extent from West and central Africa.

The most common HIV subtype in Kenya is type A, followed by D, with a small proportion of type C. But the most common subtype in the north east of Kenya is type C, this being the most common subtype in southern Africa, Ethiopia and a number of other countries. So the former province really does seem to have a different epidemic or ‘subepidemic’. Type C is known to have evolved later than A and D, so the former North Eastern Province’s subepidemic is newer, like those in North African countries.

But it is still unclear how the above features of certain epidemics and subepidemics are associated with very low prevalence. Instead of looking for phenomena behind very high prevalence in some south western counties, are there certain phenomena that are absent in the north west (and in North Africa)? Isolation doesn’t mean less sex, nor even less ‘unsafe’ sex, and sexual behavior is very poorly correlated with HIV transmission.

We don’t know much about Wajir, Mandera and Garissa because not much research has been carried out there, and it’s not surprising that little HIV research has been carried out where there’s little HIV transmission. But what about other healthcare research? I notice almost all the articles on PubMed are about HIV, and were published in the last 20-30 years. So the area has been isolated from research for a long time.

Now, if there are few roads and limited infrastructures, is healthcare infrastructure similarly limited? It could be expected that access to healthcare facilities is poor and that many people rarely or never go to a hospital, or see any kind of health professional. The majority of women probably give birth at home, coverage of mass drug administration programs, including routine immunizations, is probably lower for these and other more isolated counties.

Borrowing Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s ‘via negativa’ in his book ‘Antifragile’, perhaps HIV prevalence in the north east of Kenya (and in North Africa) has remained low because of infrequent contact with healthcare facilities. This is not to say that healthcare facilities are unsafe in the north east, although it does suggest that they are unsafe in high prevalence counties. Also, it is suggested that HIV is circulating in health facilities, more in some than in others.

Many (including Taleb) like to repeat that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’. There is a possibility that HIV has been, and is still circulating in health facilities in Kenya, and may account for a significant proportion of infections, perhaps the majority of infections. Little research has been carried out to estimate the relative contribution of healthcare associated HIV transmission. We will never know until the evidence is sought: does limited contact with healthcare keep HIV prevalence low in the north east of Kenya?

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?

Choke on it: Peak Free Lunch at HIV Inc?


There have been several mentions recently of significant cuts in HIV funding, including PEPFAR and the Global Fund for Aids, TB and Malaria. It is said that funding could be cut by several billion dollars per annum, even as much as one third of all funding. Should we be worried?

According to UNAIDS, funding available for low and middle income countries has grown from $4.8 billion in 2000 to $19.5 billion in 2016. During that time, deaths from Aids have dropped from a peak of 1.9 million people in 2005 to 1 million in 2016.

The number of new infections has gone from about 4.7 million in 1995 to 1.8 million in 2016 and the number accessing treatment has gone from 685,000 people in 2000 to 19.5m people in 2016. The fear is that the number of deaths will cease to drop, or even increase, as the number of people on treatment flattens out or drops.

The gains over the last 15 years are certainly impressive, especially the increases in funding. But the correlation between increases in funding and improvements in HIV indicators is not so clear. Drops in rates of new infections had started many years before, and even death rates had peaked and started to decline before funds such as PEPFAR and GPATM would have had much impact.

In fact, figures for new transmissions in some high prevalence countries started to drop in the 80s (Uganda) and 90s (Kenya and Tanzania), long before big funding and large treatment programs were available. By the 2000s, several countries with serious epidemics were already seeing a substantial downward trend (Zimbabwe), with only an occasional upward blip, such as that experienced in Uganda.

Here are some ways that a lot more could be achieved with a lot less money:

  • Trace the possible source of every new infection; every new infection is potentially the source of more than one further infection, so failure to trace sources represents one of the biggest missed opportunities of the last 30 years of providing HIV services
  • Offer non-HIV healthcare services to those who test negative (as an incentive to testing), eg, free treatment for conditions other than HIV, including STIs
  • Re-examine the relative contributions of non-sexual and sexual infection routes for HIV, which must vary considerably from country to country, even within countries
  • Re-integrate HIV clinics and services into other health facilities, getting rid of expensive parallel HIV-specific structures
  • Distribute funding at a level closer to people on the ground, such as HIV positive people and those providing services
  • Re-direct some of the remaining funding to improving safety in certain service areas, eg, maternal health
  • ‘No blame’ investigations into serious outbreaks, especially among those whose risk should be low, eg, maternal health beneficiaries, virgins, infants, etc
  • Drop failing programs, such as abstinence-only and other behavioral programs that are aimed solely at sexual behavior
  • Listen to leaders who are calling for positive change, for things to be done differently, for a re-think of some of the strategies that have been failing for a long time

Big reductions in HIV funding could be used as an opportunity to make positive changes in the way the remaining funding is spent, and allow each dollar to go much further. Country leaders need to think differently, rather than chaining themselves to strategies that have been failing for years. Massive HIV NGOs and other institutions are too far removed from individual epidemics to be able to see differences between countries and within countries.

What we should worry about is stasis: static thinking in HIV institutions, static research focus in universities, static behavior in health facilities, static attitudes that have not moved on from the sensationalist finger-pointing of the 1980s. Static or falling funding is irrelevant so long as HIV spending remains independent of what’s happening on the ground. A radical drop in funding may bring about the very changes that have been wanting for decades.

Religion, Former Colonial Powers; Fighting Prejudice with Prejudice?


In a paper entitled ‘Religious and Cultural Traits in HIV/AIDS Epidemics in Sub-Saharan Africa‘, the authors conclude that the Islamic faith is protective against HIV. Their conclusions about the role of colonial powers is not quite so clear, except to the extent that former British colonies (FBC) tend to be predominantly Protestant (or non-Catholic) and most of the countries that are predominantly Catholic are former non-British colonies (FNBC).

Making associations between HIV and religion, high prevalence and Christianity, low prevalence and Islam, high prevalence and FBCs, lower prevalence and FNBCs, etc, are very tempting. All the predominantly Muslim countries in Africa have low HIV prevalence, with Guinea-Bissau (3.9%) being the only one with a figure higher than 2% (and it is only 45% Muslim). Prevalence in countries with 90% or more Muslims only reaches a high of 1.1% in Sudan.

All the countries with prevalence above 4% are predominantly Christian; out of these, only four are FNBCs. There are nine countries with over 1 million people living with HIV. Only one is an FNBC (Mozambique) and only one is roughly evenly split into Christians and Muslims (Nigeria). All the highest prevalence figures are in the Christian dominated Southern region, and the four with prevalence below .4% are in the predominantly Muslim North.

But things come apart a bit when you look at countries that are Christian, but not predominantly Protestant. There are six predominantly Catholic countries, all FNBCs, where the highest prevalence figure is 2.9%; all these countries are in Central Africa. Yet, a number of countries made up of between 20% and almost 50% Catholic populations have some of the highest prevalence figures, too.

While Muslims and Catholics (ostensibly) oppose extra-marital sex, homosexuality and various other phenomena, so do Protestants and other non-Catholic Christian churches. Suggesting that such opposition is stronger or more active in countries with lower HIV prevalence risks arguing in a circle.

Some useful generalizations can be made, such as very high prevalence in Southern Africa, very low prevalence in North Africa, mainly low prevalence in West and Central Africa and high prevalence in East Africa. It is also broadly true that most predominantly Christian FBCs are Protestant dominated, rather than Catholic dominated. With the exception of Mozambique, prevalence in all FNBCs is never higher than 5%; but these countries can be predominantly Muslim, Christian, mixed, or Catholic.

There are two major objections to the analysis given or implied in this paper. The first is is that patterns and generalizations that can be made at the regional level, or even at the country level, do not always hold within countries; the second objection is to the assumption that HIV is almost always sexually transmitted.

The authors find some broad correlations but they do not discuss causality. They claim that the populations of countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria, for example, were protected from HIV because of their Muslim faith and the practices that go with that. But those countries, and others in the North, might have been ‘protected’ by one of the largest desert areas in the world, the Sahara.

In addition, HIV in those countries is mainly subtype B, which is generally associated with male to male sex (and to a lesser extent injected drug use). Subtype B is rare in other parts of Africa, with the exception of South Africa (where it mainly seems to infect men who have sex with men). HIV epidemics appear to form different patterns across regions and countries. But it also forms different patterns within countries.

High HIV prevalence in the Southern region may be facilitated, to some extent at least, by the well developed infrastructure there, infrastructure that would have been built by the British Colonial power. The same colonial power built far fewer roads or other infrastructure in East Africa, and none at all in Central Africa, where they had very little control.

However, they had control of a number of West African countries, where there is generally a strong infrastructure. Why did HIV not spread around West Africa to the extent it did in Southern Africa? Well developed infrastructure may partly explain variation in HIV prevalence between some countries and some regions, but it doesn’t explain enough. There are clearly factors operating within each country that account for some variation in HIV prevalence.

Regarding the second objection, the authors link the Muslim faith with certain moral precepts which they feel protect people from HIV. However, the majority of people in non-Muslim countries were not infected because they engaged in ‘immoral’ behavior. Even ‘official’ figures show that the bulk of people infected in many high prevalence countries have only one sexual partner, and most of those partners are HIV negative.

The ‘promiscuous African’ stereotype can not be used to explain HIV transmission because it is a prejudice, not an empirical fact about people with HIV, or about people from countries with high HIV prevalence. But similarly, the ‘non-promiscuous Muslim’ is also a stereotype, however positive. If you can not discern a person’s sexual behavior from their HIV status, nor discern a person’s HIV status from their sexual behavior, the conclusion that being a Muslim is protective against HIV is unwarranted.

Religion and former colonial power may be two important influences in HIV epidemics, but the authors fail to show convincingly how they operate on HIV transmission. Arguing that those and all other relevant factors relate exclusively to indivicual sexual behavior fails to explain the spread of HIV within countries. Heterogeneity between and within African countries suggests that HIV prevalence is not all about sex, and that not all factors operate at the individual level.

Depo Provera Hormonal Contraceptive, ‘Sayana Press’ and the Population Control Bruderbond


In developing countries “the risk for maternal death during childbirth can be as high as 1 in 15“. One might expect this horrifying statistic to be used as an argument for adequate and safe maternal healthcare. Instead, it is being used to sell Depo Provera hormonal contraceptive for Pfizer, administered via a device claimed to be ‘innovative’.

The device in question, the ‘Sayana Press’, may reduce the risks of needles and syringes being reused, and (hopefully) of single doses being split between two people. But calling something ‘innovative’ does not guarantee its safety, and the hope is that the drug can also be self-administered, in addition to being administered by community based health teams.

However, Depo Provera has been found to double the risk of HIV negative women being infected with the virus through sex with an infected partner, and double the risk of HIV positive women transmitting it to a HIV negative sexual partner. In the case of Depo Provera, population control, reducing the number of births in developing countries, is being prioritized over protecting women from being infected with and with transmitting HIV.

The citation above from one of PATH’s blogs starts off talking about the long walk some women have to ‘access’ contraception, the long queue they have to wait in, the use of a smaller needle, etc. But dressing this up as an exercise in ‘enabling’ women or genuine service provision is pure humbug.

The Don’t Get Stuck with HIV Collective is in favor of access to healthcare, especially reproductive healthcare, as long as that healthcare is safe. Depo Provera is not safe. The World Health Organization has accepted that it is not safe, but has decided that reducing birth is more important than safety, and even than reducing HIV transmission.

The blog goes on about reaching women in remote areas. Women in remote areas are far less likely to be infected with HIV than women in urban areas, or women living close to major roads, health facilities and other modern amenities. But the use of Depo Provera may be the very factor that increases risk under such circumstances.

‘Getting health services out to people’ is only desirable when those health services are safe. True, many women want to limit the size of their families, presumably many men do, too. But giving people options must include knowledge about healthcare safety and awareness about non-sexual risks from unsafe healthcare, dangerous pharmaceutical products like Depo Provera, and even the many vested interests that various parties in the population control bruderbond may prefer to keep to themselves.

Insidious use of words like ‘innovative’, ‘community’, ‘village’ and the like are great when raising funds or carrying out PR activities, but it doesn’t get away from the fact that, in the case of a dangerous drug like Depo Provera, it is not the method of delivery that presents the increased risk of HIV transmission, but the drug itself.

Healthcare is a human right, and an inherently good thing; but unsafe healthcare is the complete opposite of what people in developing countries with serious HIV (also hepatitis, TB, ebola, MRSA, etc) epidemics need. Depo Provera has been found to be unsafe. Creating demand for it, therefore, is not in the interest of people living in poor countries; it only benefits Pfizer, and the many organizations and institutions that have been attracted to the potential funding it represents.

We do them in Black for 14.99


I was recently sent an article which stated that “Novel strategies are needed to increase the uptake of voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) in sub-Saharan Africa and enhance the effectiveness of male circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy.”

The operation is provided free of charge. But this ‘intervention’ randomized participants into three groups, the first receiving about $2.50 in food vouchers, the second receiving about $8.75 and the third about $15, conditional on getting circumcised within two months. There was also a control group of men who received no compensation.

You may wonder why an operation said to be so highly beneficial requires a financial incentive; your wonder may (or may not) be assuaged by the assurance that some men face certain “economic barriers to VMMC and behavioral factors such as present-biased decision making”.

‘Present-biased’ suggesting that people will not spend money now on something that promises a future benefit only. However, perhaps these men don’t see any benefit; perhaps they use condoms, have only one, HIV negative, sexual partner, don’t have sex at all, live in a place where HIV prevalence is extremely low (there are many in Africa, far more than places where prevalence is high), etc. It’s also unclear what proportion of HIV is transmitted through heterosexual sex, which is the only mode of transmission circumcision enthusiasts even claim to reduce.

So those providing the operation propose ‘compensating’ each man for some of the costs involved in having the operation, possibly including the opportunity costs of missing work for a few days. You could argue that there will be no net financial benefit, and that this is nothing like bribing people to conform to a practice that some western donors from rich countries see as beneficial, but that the majority of people, even in rich countries, consider useless, perhaps even harmful.

The claimed future ‘benefit’ comes to this: one person out of every one hundred or more men who are circumcised (we don’t know the number because mass male circumcision trials have been biased towards showing the effectiveness of the operation) may be ‘protected’ from infection with HIV; ‘protected’ if it really is the circumcision that protects the man; no causal protective mechanism has ever been convincingly demonstrated.

The upshot of the trial will not surprise anyone. Hardly any of those in the control group went on to avail of their free circumcision. Slightly more of the men receiving $2.50 did so. The same goes for those receiving $8.50 and those receiving $15. But the overall impact was “a modest increase in the prevalence of circumcision after 2 months”.

The several hundred thousand Kenyans claimed to have already agreed to be circumcised under these mass male circumcision programs (many of whom would have been circumcised anyway in accordance with tribal practice), and the millions claimed to have been circumcised under similar programs in other African countries, may be disappointed that they will not receive anything at all to reflect “a portion of transportation costs and lost wages associated with getting circumcised”.

Depending on whose figures you use, circumcisions in African countries are claimed to cost as little as $60. Other figures suggest that the cost is at least twice that, and NGOs profiting from these programs would have an interest in claiming costs as high as possible. All the figures are puny compared to what the operation would cost in a rich country. But with an estimated 22 million men said to be currently eligible in Africa, and several tens of millions more boys not counted in the original estimate, just how much money is available?

Much of the literature about mass male circumcision is about notional economic benefits and quite superficial issues, such as assumed cleanliness and hygiene (for which there is no evidence), aesthetic aspects, improved sexual experience, and the like. Very little is about ethics, politics or, god forbid, human rights.

The ‘benefits’ of circumcision are easy enough to exaggerate and any disbenefits can be discounted because the ‘beneficiaries’ are male Africans, whose ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior is said to be responsible for the bulk of HIV transmissions.

To those promoting mass male circumcision, the useless piece of flesh on the end of a penis is a man, an African man, at that. Whereas the foreskin represents a vast funding opportunity and permits unbridled expression of a pathological belief in the multiple virtues of genital mutilation. The right to bodily integrity has, apparently, been suspended.