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Hepatitis C eradication and profit


Note: This is a guest blog by Helmut Jäger. Dr Jäger’s website and blog provides more information and thoughtful comments on healthcare issues at: http://www.medizinisches-coaching.net/

Good news: hepatitis C can be cured

Since 2016, the World Health Organization recommends treating hepatitis C infection with sofosbuvir (NS5B-Polymerase-inhibitor)The manufacturer (Gilead) demands an extremely high price, and

“.. the public paid twice: for the pharmaceutical research and for the purchase of the product. The enormous profits flow to the Gilead shareholders.”(Roy BMJ 2016, 354: i3718)

The evidence for the effectiveness of direct-acting antivirals (DAA) for chronic hepatitis C comes from short-term trials. Cochrane is unable to determine the effect of long-term treatment with these drugs:

DAAs may reduce the number of people with detectable virus in their blood, but we do not have sufficient evidence from randomised trials that enables us to understand how SVR (sustained virological response: eradication of hepatitis C virus from the blood) affects long-term clinical outcomes. SVR is still an outcome that needs proper validation in randomised clinical trials. (Cochrane 18.09.2017: http://www.cochrane.org/CD012143/LIVER_direct-acting-antivirals-chronic-hepatitis-c.)

Egypt is particularly affected by hepatitis C. Here the government negotiated special discounts with Gilead, so that relatively cheap treatment will be available. It’s the foundation of just another lucrative business based on a man-made disaster.

tourcure

Tour’n Cure: The profitable medical eradication of a problem that would not exist without medicine.

Bad news: Hepatitis C will still be transmitted by skin piercing procedures

About 2-3% of the world’s population is infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV); 350,000 of these 130-170 million people die per year. HCV causes liver infections, which are chronic in more than 70% of infected persons. That is, they do not completely cure after an infection. After one or maybe two decades, the damaged liver can fail, or develop cancer. The survival rates are low in the late stages of the disease, even under optimal treatment conditions.

Hepatitis C viruses are very sensitive to environmental influences so they are transmitted almost exclusively through blood or blood products or unclean syringes. Unlike hepatitis B or HIV/AIDS, HCV infections through sexual contacts are rare. Hence, the incidence of HCV is an indicator of a dangerous handling of needles, syringes, other medical instruments or products that lead to a direct blood contact. And new cases of HCV are acquired most likely in health care facilities or by intravenous drug use.

Treatment of disease and prevention of new infections 

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in 2016 that it wants to “combat” hepatitis C and “exterminate” it by 2030. (WHO 2017: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs164/en/)

unsafe-needles

Hazardous needles somewhere in Africa (image: Jäger, Kinsahsa 1988)

WHO’s optimism is caused by the availability of sofosbuvir. The drug is said to have cured up to 90% of affected patients in clinical trials, and consequently was added to the WHO list of essential medicines. The pharmaceutical company Gilead faces a huge global market with high profit margins (WIPO 2015): The 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.(‘T Hoen 2016)

Most people affected by hepatitis C are poor. They now learn through the media that their suffering could be cured, and at the same time that this solution seems to be unavailable to them. Consequently, they will demand the necessary funds for humanitarian reasons from their governments. Gilead expects sofosbuvir will not be manufactured and sold without a license (about 100 times cheaper). The Indian authorities already concluded in 2016 a license agreement with Gilead, which will guarantee high profit rates on the subcontinent.(‘T Hoen 2016)

Attractive medical products and markets increase the risk of the production of counterfeit medicines

In India, the requirement to allow the production of the hepatitis C drug in the “national interest” license-free is not only risky for legal reasons. India already is the world’s leading producer of fake medicines. Counterfeit drugs look exactly like real ones, but contain nothing (in the best case) or poison. About 35% of the malaria drugs in the African market are fake or useless, and they are mostly from India or China (see below: fake drugs). In the case of Egypt, medical institutions tried to open up a lucrative international market (“Tour’n cure”). Therefore, it will not be long until the first fake “sofosbuvir preparations” are offered.

The history of the hepatitis C epidemic in Egypt

The disaster of hepatitis C contamination started in Egypt more than sixty years ago. Efforts to regulate the Nile increased the risk of schistosomiasis infections. These parasites cause numerous health problems, mostly in the pelvic organs, and in rare cases, cancer. The worm larvae swim in stagnant water that has been contaminated by human urine or feces, and they enter the blood system of healthy people by piercing the skin.

The frequency of these worm infections increased rapidly after 1964, when the fast-flowing Nile was tamed by the Aswan Dam. In a relatively short time 10% of the Egyptian population was colonized by the parasite. The Ministry of Health then treated large parts of the population with injections containing antimony potassium tartrate. Until 1980 this toxic compound was considered the only effective remedy for this worm-infection. Today it is no longer used, not even in veterinary medicine.

Many years after the start of the campaign an initially unexplained epidemic of hepatitis C  was noticed in Egypt. It turned out that most of the patients with hepatitis C virus received anti-schistosomiasis injections.

Those initially infected with hepatitis C virus had higher risks to be treated in health care facilities, where the virus was then transmitted to other patients. Today (according to different estimates) 3-10% of the Egyptian population is infected with hepatitis C, and 40,000 patients die per year with the disease. Because many patients are infected, today the risk to acquire hepatitis C infection in Egyptian health facilities, even in optimal hygenic conditions, is significantly higher than in countries where hepatitis C is relatively rare.(Strickland 2006, WHO 2014)

Hepatitis C epidemic in industrialized countries

But Egypt is not an isolated case. Hepatitis C affects mostly the residents of developing and emerging countries. But even in Germany more than half a million HCV infections are recorded.

In England, in 2015 the government had to apologize for the infection of nearly 3,000 people who received infected blood products between 1970 and 1990.(Wise 2015)

In the US hepatitis C is called a “hidden epidemic” because 300,000 people were infected each year a few decades ago.(Ward 2013, Warner 2015, CDC 2015, RKI 2015, Pozzetto 2014)

Syringes and blood products are dangerous if handled improperly or if they are used although they are not necessary

blood

Blood Bank in Kinshasa (Congo, 1990, image: Jäger)

Needles (in particular the worldwide introduction of disposable syringes and their inflationary use) contributed to the spread of viruses like HCV, HIV and others.(Jäger 1990-92) The problem of the HCV epidemic is caused by the health care system and its waste products that fall into the wrong hands. The causes of the infections mostly are: bad medicine or intravenous drug addiction. What happened in Egypt is just another example that sometimes (medical) solutions of seemingly controllable health problems can lead to much larger problems: because sometimes “the things bite back.”(Tenner 1997, Dörner 2003)

Therefore WHO’s strategy to eradicate hepatitis C, based only on treatments, cannot succeed as long as the much of the medical sectors in many poor countries remain dangerous-purely-commercial and in large parts uncontrolled. The WHO campaign certainly will enrich Gilead and some health institutions, but a reduction of the hepatitis C incidence will not take place if “bad medicine” and “drug addiction” are not targeted, preferably eradicated, or at least reduced.

Unnecessary medicine is risky and should be avoided

WHO and other international health organizations should strive to avoid unnecessary therapeutic skin piercing procedures, injections, surgery and transfusions, and (if these sometimes life saving procedures are necessary) establish strict quality control. The commerce of medical tourism and beauty-interventions (botox, piercing, tattoo) should be strictly controlled.

unsafe-injection

Hazardous needles anywhere else in Africa (image: Jäger)

And we should invest in training patients: They should be supported to reduce their demand for health-care-products and to increase their knowledge in order to distinguish “good” and “bad” medicine.

 More

Literature

Bad Medicine in economically weak countries (such as “fake drugs”):

Why things bite back

HIV: Cuba’s Success and Uganda’s Failure


Uganda is frequently mentioned in glowing terms in articles about HIV, especially in relation to the late 80s, 90s and early on in the 2000s. In contrast, Cuba is rarely mentioned in glowing terms, although the percentage of 15-49 year olds infected with HIV (prevalence), at 0.3%, is 23 times smaller than the same figure for Uganda, which stood at 7.1% in 2015 (all HIV figures from UNAIDS).

In fact, one could suggest that Uganda never got to grips with the epidemic. They still can’t explain why so many people, said to face a low risk of being infected with HIV, have seroconverted over the past several decades. Despite huge amounts of research, money and other resources being thrown at the country, the bulk of published research on HIV in Uganda seems to be focused on assumed sexual behavior and assumed sexually transmitted HIV.

Little or no international funding went into the HIV epidemic in Cuba. The country worked hard to research the epidemic, even before the first HIV positive person was identified there, several years before. Luckily, the country had a well developed health service, with more doctors per patient than any other high prevalence country (including the US). Indeed, the US (where an estimated 1.2 million were living with HIV in 2013) seemed intent on ridiculing Cuba’s approach to the virus.

Some of the criticisms were directed at claimed human rights aspects of Cuba’s achievements. It was often stated or implied that men who have sex with men were especially targeted by, for example, Cuba’s imposed ‘quarantine’. The quarantining started when little was known about the course of the illness, but it was relaxed once more was known. A number of personal accounts, some from men who have sex with men, now make it clear that many of the people quarantined are grateful to have received the care they got at the ‘sanitaria’ (there are links to other similar articles from this article).

An article by Tim Anderson finds that the quarantine did not target men who have sex with men; it also finds that other procedures were carried out in accordance with international guidelines. Anderson notes that Cuba was ‘more thorough’ in their testing and tracing procedures. Cuba has continued to make improvements in how they deal with the epidemic, which is a low level one, with men who have sex with men being the most affected group.

Sarah Z Hoffman refers to Cuba’s HIV program as ‘the most successful in the world’. Cuba approached HIV with the aim of reducing the likelihood of those infected going on to infect other people. That may sound like an obvious aim, but the greater thoroughness of Cuba identified by Anderson can be contrasted with a reduction in contact tracing in many countries, where it was claimed that certain groups were being unfairly targeted by such measures.

Cuba also started providing all HIV positive people with antiretrovirals in 2001, which they produced themselves as generic versions. Other countries had to wait a long time before they could provide more than a small fraction of HIV positive people with ARVs, and they had to pay astronomical amounts of money for them for years (although the costs are far lower now).

Hoffman writes “HIV infected people must provide the names of all sexual partners in the past six months, and those individuals must be tested for HIV. People found to have any sexually transmitted disease must undergo an HIV test as well. Voluntary HIV screening is encouraged.”

This is one of the places where practices in Cuba differ from practices in most other countries. This is called ‘contact tracing’ and it’s a vital tool of infection control. But in most countries people can claim anything they wish to about their sexual partners, that they have never had sex, that they have only engaged in heterosexual sex, that they have never injected drugs, etc. If people can withhold such information then contact tracing is impossible.

(My previous post is about a rare and valuable contribution to the history of HIV in Africa from John Potterat’s book ‘Seeking the Positives’, much of which concentrates on his work on HIV and STI epidemiology in the US. There’s a link to the chapter here. The approach the US adopted towards HIV could hardly have been more different from that of Cuba. Unfortunately, most other countries, certainly most poor countries, wedded themselves to the US, till death…etc.)

As a result of not tracing contacts, or of not doing so very assiduously, countries like the US, with extremely high transmission rates in certain groups, have never got their epidemic under control. In common with Cuba, the largest proportion of new HIV infections now is among men who have sex with men. Unlike Cuba, there is also a large injecting drug population in the US. But where contacts are not traced, they can not be offered the same opportunity to avoid infection if they are negative, or avoid infecting others if they are positive. Nor can they be ‘connected to care’ as quickly as possible.

In fact, many of the things western countries write copiously about, such as early testing and treatment, universal testing, elimination of mother to child transmission, universal access to treatment, were achieved in Cuba years ago, but have never been fully achieved even in some western countries. Where HIV prevalence is highest, in southern and eastern African countries, some of those achievements may not be realized in our lifetime.

Unfortunately for the worst affected countries, the rights of individuals are claimed to be foremost. Their contacts, past and future, are not treated as individuals. If the individual has multiple partners and chooses not to reveal that they engage in high risk practices, that’s considered to be the individual’s business. If the individual has had no sexual partners, or no HIV positive sexual partners, then the source of their infection needs to be identified. But in high prevalence African countries tracing of non-sexual contacts is rare. What you do find a lot of in research is findings referred to as ‘biased’, because the researcher expected every HIV transmission to be a case of sexual transmission.

(Despite the apparent desire of most countries to protect people’s individual rights in relation to HIV, this approach seemed to go out the window when the virus involved was ebola. Some ‘infection control’ measures seemed to involve groups breaking into people’s houses, forcing them into shabby health facilities, burning their property in public, spraying their houses, breaking up families and communities, etc. Who knows what approach will be taken to the next headline grabbing epidemic.)

So why all the attention and resources for a country that appears to have lost control of HIV a long time ago, and why all the rhetorical questions about Uganda, how their ‘success’ can be replicated, etc? More importantly, why so little attention for Cuba, and why is it so belated? We can learn a lot from both countries. Instead, we should be asking what Cuba did right, and continues to do right, but what Uganda did wrong, and continues to do wrong.

Cuba’s approach to HIV may have been the most successful anywhere. Some would go further and claim that Cuba may be the only country that was seriously threatened by the virus, but gained complete control over the epidemic early on, and retained that control. In the sphere of human rights, also, Cuba has made a lot of progress. Uganda, on the other hand, continues to move in the opposite direction in the fields of public health, human rights, HIV, political stability, economy, etc.

Charging HIV-positive husbands and wives with adultry — and lying about it


return to first research page

A wife, husband, and children can be hurt when a gossip — with no evidence — spreads rumors that the wife or husband have lovers.

This situation threatens many HIV-positive married men and women in Africa. HIV prevention programs say most infected adults — including wives and husbands with HIV-negative partners — got HIV from lovers, even if there is no evidence they had lovers, and even if they deny it. Such HIV prevention messages are equivalent to rumors — averring without evidence that people had secret lovers and lied about it.

Researchers have supported such unfounded “rumors.” For example, a UNAIDS-funded study in Zimbabwe followed adults to see who got HIV and what were their risks. After finding and reporting that “[t]hirteen of 67 individuals seroconverting in this study reported no sexual  partners in the inter-survey period..” the authors opined: …misreporting of sexual behaviour may explain some of these infections….”[1]

Wife with HIV, husband without

Many women are victimized by such unsupported suspicions. National surveys in 24 African countries during 2010-14 report the percentages of couples with HIV in one or both partners. In 14 of 24 countries, if a married woman was HIV-positive, more than 50% of husbands were HIV-negative (Table 1). This is not explained by women getting HIV before marriage – even among married women aged 30-39 years, an HIV-positive wife was more likely to have an HIV-negative than an HIV-positive husband in 12 of 24 countries (Table 1).

Table 1: Among married women who are HIV-positive, what % of  husbands are HIV-negative?

wife+ husband-

Sources: Demographic and Health Surveys and AIDS Information Surveys for each country available at: http://www.dhsprogram.com/Where-We-Work/Country-List.cfm (from this link, click on the country and then the survey, and then go to the chapter that reports HIV prevalence).

Seeing such data and recognizing “women’s low self-reported levels of extramarital sex, a World Bank economist opines: “…I conclude that the sizable fraction of discordant female couples is extremely difficult to explain without extramarital sex among married women.”[2]

Most countries in Africa routinely test pregnant women for HIV. Hence, the wife is often the first partner to know her status. If the husband subsequently goes for a test, he is more likely to test HIV-negative than HIV-positive in most countries across Africa.

What is he to think? Should he believe his wife? Or should he believe healthcare professionals (behaving like gossips) who propose his wife lied? It is relevant, as well, that healthcare professionals have a conflict of interest – the alternative to blaming wives for adultery is to acknowledge their HIV may have come from unsafe healthcare.

Husband with HIV, wife without

Similarly, blaming all HIV on sex encourages wives to blame HIV-positive husbands for having lovers and lying about it. In 15 of 24 countries, when the husband is HIV-positive, at least 50% of wives are HIV-negative (see Table 2).

Table 2: Among married HIV-positive men, the % of wives HIV-negative

husband+ wife-
Sources: Demographic and Health Surveys and AIDS Information Surveys for each country available at: http://www.dhsprogram.com/Where-We-Work/Country-List.cfm (from this link, click on the country and then the survey, and then go to the chapter that reports HIV prevalence).

References

1. Lopman, Garnett, Mason, Gregson. Individual level injection history: A lack of association with HIV incidence in rural Zimbabwe. PLoS 2008: Med 2(2): e37. Available at: http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020037&representation=PDF

2. de Walque D. Sero-discordant couples in five African countries: implications for HIV prevention strategies. Pop Dev Review 2007; 33: 501-523. Abstract available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1728-4457.2007.00182.x (accessed 28 October 2018).

Cambodia


Roka Commune outbreak

In November 2014, a 74-year old man in Roka Commune, Cambodia, tested HIV-positive. He sent his granddaughter and son-in-law for tests. They also tested positive. Alarmed by these unexpected HIV infections, more residents of Roka Commune went for tests; many were HIV-positive.

The next month, December 2014, Cambodia’s Ministry of Health initiated an investigation with collaboration from WHO, the US CDC, UNAIDS, UNICEF, and the Pasteur Institute in Cambodia.[1]

Three papers report results from this investigation.[2,3,4] Results are limited to 242 persons testing HIV-positive through end-February  2015. Comparing HIV-positive residents with neighbors, infected residents had received more injections, infusions, and blood tests. Reports say nothing about specific failures in infection control (e.g., did providers give injections after changing needles but reusing syringes? did providers give infusions with reused plastic tubes and saline bags?). Many persons were co-infected with hepatitis C, which unsafe healthcare had been spreading in the community for years before the HIV outbreak.

Using information from these reports, one of the managers of this website (DG) estimated the transmission efficiency of HIV through contaminated injection equipment at 4.6%-9.2% (this is the risk that an injection administered to an HIV-positive person during the outbreak transmitted HIV to a subsequent patient).[5]

Other information related to the Roka outbreak

In early 2017, a newspaper article reported 292 infections in the outbreak.[6]

As in many other nosocomial HIV outbreaks, children were on the front lines: 22% of cases were in children <14 years old.[2]

Alerted by the investigation, people looked for unexpected infections and unsafe practices elsewhere in Cambodia. A December 2015 BBC article – one year after Roka broke into public view – reports continued and common unsafe practices.[7] In mid-February 2016, an NGO reported 14 patients testing HIV-positive – 10 from Peam village in Kandal Province, a village of 1,000, and 4 from neighboring villages[8]. The article reported 32 previously known infections in Peam village, for a total of 42 or 4.2% of 1,000 villagers. In interviews, persons newly identified with HIV denied sexual risks and suspected infection from injections by a specified local doctor.

See also these dontgetstuck.org blogs posts

References

1. Eng Sarath. Ministry of Health, Cambodia. 24 December 2014. HIV cases in Sangke district, Battambang. Available at: http://www.cdcmoh.gov.kh/97-hiv-cases-in-sangke-district-battambang

2. Mean Chhi Vun et al. Cluster of HIV infections attributed to unsafe injections  – Cambodia December 1, 2014-February 28, 2015. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2016: 65:  142-145. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/65/wr/mm6506a2.htm (accessed 28 March 2016).

3. Saphonn V, Fujita M, Samreth S, et al. Cluster of HIV infections associated with unsafe injection practices in a rural village in Cambodia. J Acquir Immune Defic Syndr 2017; 75: 285-e86. Available at: https://journals.lww.com/jaids/Citation/2017/07010/Cluster_of_HIV_Infections_Associated_With_Unsafe.19.aspx (accessed 12 February 2018).

4. Rouet F, Nouhin J, Zheng D-P, et al. Massive iatrogenic outbreak of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 in rural Cambodia, 2014-2015. Clin Infect Dis 2017; epub ahead of print. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/cid/cix1071/4689456?redirectedFrom=PDF (accessed 12 February 2018).

5. Gisselquist D. HIV transmission efficiency through contaminated injections in Roka, Cambodia. biorxiv 2017. Available at: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2017/05/15/136135.full.pdf (accessed 12 February 2018).

6. Millar P. How the residents of Cambodia’s “HIV village” are coping more than two years on. Southeast Asia Globe, 15 March 2017. Available at: http://sea-globe.com/how-the-residents-of-cambodias-hiv-village-are-coping-more-than-two-years-on/ (accessed 14 August 2017.

7. John Murphy. BBC, 17 December 2015. A country in love with injections and drips.
Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35111566

8. Aun Pheap, George Wright. Doctor denies spreading HIV in latest outbreak. Cambodia Daily News 22 February 2016. Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/doctor-denies-spreading-hiv-in-latest-outbreak-108791/ (accessed 28 March 2016).

See also:

Kehumile Mazibuko. News Tonight Africa, 4 December 2015. Cambodia: unlicensed medical practitioner sentenced for infecting more than 100 people with HIV. Available at: http://newstonight.co.za/content/cambodia-unlicensed-medical-practitioner-sentenced-infecting-more-100-people-hiv

Khy Sovuthy, Anthony Jensen. Cambodia Daily, 8 December 2015. In HIV case, key evidence trails behind guilty verdict. Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/in-hiv-case-key-evidence-trails-behind-guilty-verdict-102320/

Why do UNICEF, WHO, and UNAIDS choose to stigmatize rather than protect African youth?


(return to first research page)

Beginning in early 2015, UNICEF with UNAIDS, WHO, and other organizations initiated the All In to #EndAdolescentAIDS program. The program has some good points – e.g, promoting more HIV testing and better treatment for HIV-positive adolescents.

However, the program is off the mark on prevention. It says nothing about risks adolescents in Africa face to get HIV from blood-contaminated instruments during health care (blood tests, dental care, injections, etc) and cosmetic services (tattooing, manicures, hair styling).

Ignoring such risks while focusing only on sex stigmatizes those who are already infected (aha! you had careless sex!) and misleads those who are HIV-negative to ignore blood-borne risks.

Evidence HIV-positive adolescents did NOT get HIV from sex

The best available evidence – from national surveys – suggests less than half of HIV infections in African adolescents came from sex. For example, in national surveys in Kenya, Lesotho, and Tanzania, majorities of HIV-positive youth aged 15-19 years reported being virgins (Table 1). Across these three countries, 57% (36 of 63) HIV-positive youth in the survey samples reported being virgins.[1]

table 1 adolescents

Some HIV-positive teens may have gotten HIV from their mothers when they were babies; but without antiretroviral treatment (ART), which arrived late in Africa, survival to adolescence would be unusual. Thus most adolescent virgins with HIV likely got it from blood contacts. If virgins are getting HIV that way, some non-virgins are likely getting it the same way.

Using data from national surveys in Lesotho, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe, and assuming no lying about sexual behavior, Deuchert estimates only 30% of HIV-positive never-married adolescent women aged 15-19 years got infected through sex.[2] What if some lied? Deuchart does the math: “The assumption that HIV is predominantly sexually transmitted is valid only if more than 55% of unmarried adolescent women who are sexually active have misreported sexual activity status.” (Tennekoon makes a similar analysis.[3])

But let’s cast the net wider: During 2003-15, 45 national surveys in Africa reported the %s of (self-reported) virgin and non-virgin youth aged 15-24 years with HIV (see Table 2 at the end of this blog post). Young men and women got HIV whether or not they virgins.

For example, in Congo (Brazzaville), Rwanda, Guinea (2012), Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Gambia, the %s of young women that were HIV-positive was greater among virgins than among all young women. Among young men, the % with HIV was the same or greater among virgins vs. all young men in Tanzania (2007-08), Congo (Brazzaville), Sierra Leone (2013), Guinea (2005), Mali, Sao Tome and Principe, Burundi, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Gambia.

Across all 45 surveys, the median ratio of the %s of self-reported virgin young men with HIV to all young men with HIV was 0.75 (last line, Table 2). Across all 45 surveys, the median ratio of the %s of self-reported virgin young women with HIV to all young women with HIV was 0.33 (last line, Table 2). And, as noted above, many infections in non-virgins likely came from blood-borne risks.

The only way to say most HIV infections in adolescents in Africa come from sex is to throw away the best evidence we have – to assume survey data are wrong because self-reported HIV-positive virgins are lying. That seems to be what experts at UNICEF, WHO, and UNAIDS have done – ignoring evidence to accuse HIV-positive adolescents of unwise sex, and accusing them also of lying if they say they are virgins.

Stigmatizing HIV-positive African youth for unwise sexual behavior is a form of abuse. Because young women are more likely than young men to be exposed to HIV during more frequent health care and cosmetic procedures, not warning about bloodborne risks contributes to unrecognized violence and abuse targeting African women.

table 2d adolescentstable 2e adolescents

References

1. Brewer DD, Potterat JJ, Muth SQ, Brody S. Converging evidence suggests nonsexual HIV transmission among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. J Adolescent Health 2007; 40: 290-293. Partial draft available at: https://www.deepdyve.com/lp/elsevier/converging-evidence-suggests-nonsexual-hiv-transmission-among-105k5VXKQE (accessed 19 December 2015).

2. Deuchert E. The Virgin HIV Puzzle: Can Misreporting Account for the High Proportion of HIV Cases in Self-reported Virgins? Journal of African Economics, October 2011, pp 60-89. Abstract available at: http://jae.oxfordjournals.org/content/20/1/60.abstract (accessed 19 December 2015).

3. Tennekoon VSBW. Topics in health economics. PhD dissertation. Washington State U, 2012. Available at: http://research.wsulibs.wsu.edu:8080/xmlui/bitstream/handle/2376/4270/Tennekoon_wsu_0251E_10484.pdf?sequence=1 (accessed 18 December 2015). See also an earlier paper by

 

 

 

 

 

WHO to Warn About Unsafe Healthcare Transmitted Hepatitis, but not HIV?


UNAIDS, WHO, CDC and other institutions continue their insistence that HIV is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sex in African countries (though nowhere else), and that unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices play a vanishingly small and declining role in transmission.

It was suggested to me recently by someone who questions the above views that these well funded institutions will eventually have to change their tune. However, he felt that they would not admit that they are wrong, or that they have known since the 1980s about the risks posed by unsafe healthcare and other non-sexual HIV transmission routes.

Perhaps hepatitis C is the opportunity needed? The WHO is now warning people about the dangers of infection through unsafe blood, medical injections and sharing of injecting equipment. They are also recommending the use of injecting equipment that cannot be reused, rather than equipment that should not be reused, but frequently is.

Unfortunately, the WHO is not very explicit about the problem: there are many health professionals who are unaware about the risks of reusing skin piercing equipment, especially injecting equipment. These health professionals do not warn their patients because they are unaware that they should not reuse syringes, needles, even multi-dose vials that may have become contaminated.

People may be surprised that there are health professionals who are unaware of these risks, or that they take these risks even if they are aware of them. But every year there are cases of infectious, even deadly diseases, being transmitted to patients through careless use of skin piercing equipment. Tens of thousands of people are put at risk, and that’s just in wealthy countries.

As for poor countries, especially sub-Saharan African countries, where the highest rates of HIV are to be found, no one knows how many people have been put at risk, how many have been infected with hepatitis, HIV or other blood borne viruses, or how many are still at risk. People are not being made aware of the risks they face, so they can not take steps to avoid them.

The US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) still carries the rather limp “HIV cannot survive for very long outside of the body”, instead of warning people that they should not allow the blood of another person enter their bloodstream. It is irrelevant how long these viruses survive; people need to know that contaminated blood may be entering their bloodstream so that they can take steps to avoid this.

Unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices carry huge risks, especially in countries where blood borne viruses such as hepatitis, HIV and others are common. People can avoid infection with these blood borne viruses by avoiding potentially unsafe healthcare, unsafe cosmetic practices, such as tattooing or body piercing, and traditional practices, such as circumcision or scarification.

Depo Provera and Circumcision: Violence Against Women Masquerading as Research


Although there are plenty of instances of institutionally sanctioned violence against women, this blog post is about two very prominent instances: mass male circumcision programs [*Greg Boyle, cited below; one of the most up to date publications on the subject, which cites many of the seminal works] and the aggressive promotion of the dangerous injectible contraceptive, Depo Provera (DMPA).

Why are mass male circumcision (MMC) programs instances of violence against women? Well, three trials of MMC were carried out to show that it reduced female to male transmission of HIV. They were show trials, with the entire process monitored to ensure that it gave the results that the researchers wanted. These trials have been cited countless times by popular and academic publications.

Less frequently cited was a single trial of MMC that was intended to show that it reduced male to female transmission of HIV. None of these four trials were independent of each other and the female to male trials produced suspiciously similar results, despite taking place in different countries, with ostensibly different teams. But the single male to female trial showed the opposite to what the researchers wanted: circumcision increased HIV transmission, considerably.

During all four of the trials, male participants were not required to inform their partner if they were found to be HIV positive, or if they became infected during the trial. If there had been any ethical oversight, those refusing to inform their partner would have been excluded from the trial. This is what would have happened in western countries, including the one that funded the research, the US.

Given that many women and men believe that circumcision protects a man from HIV, these MMC programs are giving HIV positive men the means to have possibly unprotected sex with HIV negative women. Many women and men were infected with HIV during the four show trials and almost all of those infections could have been avoided. How participants became infected during the trials has never been investigated, which is not only unethical, but also renders the trials useless.

Despite Depo Provera use substantially increasing the risk of HIV positive women infecting their sexual partners, and the risk of HIV positive men infecting women using the deadly contraceptive, this is the favored contraceptive method for many of the biggest NGOs (many of the biggest NGOs are engaged in population control of some kind). Therefore, its use is far more common in poor countries (especially among sex workers) and among non-white populations in rich countries.

These two instances of violence against women (and men) are funded by the likes of CDC, UNAIDS and the Gates Foundation. Many research papers extolling the virtues of MMC and Depo Provera are paid for by such institutions, copiously cited by them in publications, and constantly wheeled out as examples of successful global health programs. Yet, they are both responsible for countless numbers of avoidable HIV infections.

There is currently a lot of institutional maundering about violence against women and certain instances of it, but some of these same institutions are taking part in the perpetration of it; they are funding it, making money and careers out of it, promoting themselves and their activities on the back of what is entirely unethical. Why do Institutional Review Boards, peer reviewers and academics, donors and others seem happy to ignore these travesties? Who is it that decides that this is all OK, when it clearly is not?

Why are these not considered to be unethical: aggressively promoting the use of a dangerous medication, and an invasive operation that will neither protect men nor women? Is it because those promoting them are making a lot of money out of them, because the victims are mostly poor, non-white people, because the research and programs take place in poor countries, because ethics is nice in principle but too expensive in practice…? Or all of the above and more?

* Boyle, G. J. (2013). Critique of African RCTs into male circumcision and HIV sexual transmission. In G. C. Denniston et al. (Eds.), Genital cutting: Protecting children from medical, cultural, and religious infringements. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Science+Business Media doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-6407-1_15

Africans Several Steps Ahead of ‘Global’ Health?


Many articles about ebola continue to mention a two year old boy who was probably infected with the virus some time in December of 2013. The articles refer to the boy as the ‘index case’, as if his being infected set off the recent epidemic in West Africa.

In fact, working back from confirmed cases, the trail goes cold before December 2013. There is no data about the virus and the investigation becomes pure speculation at this point. There is no evidence that the boy was infected by a bat, nor is there evidence that bats or other animals in the area carry ebola.

Articles mentioning this two year old boy, bats, ‘corpse touching’ at funerals and even sexually transmitted ebola (of which no cases have ever been confirmed), are commonplace. It is not just the media that revel in them, but also many scientific and medical articles.

But the people of West Africa seem oblivious to many of the warnings they have been receiving about ebola. And maybe they are right?

Apparently Liberians are completely unconvinced about the dangers of eating bush meat.

In Guinea, cases of malaria and deaths from malaria far exceed numbers of people infected with ebola and deaths from ebola. More importantly, the number of deaths from malaria has increased because people have been avoiding health facilities, fearing they might be infected with ebola.

Worse still, their condition may be mistaken for ebola and they could end up in an ebola treatment unit, with other suspected ebola cases, some of which turn out to have the virus.

To fear health facilities in Africa is perfectly logical. Healthcare conditions in most African countries are appalling. Not just ebola, but HIV, TB, hepatitis and other diseases have been spread by unsafe healthcare practices, such as reused injecting and other skin-piercing instruments.

CDC, UNAIDS, WHO and other health agencies may be convinced by their own propaganda, but people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are not. And, it seems, they have entirely valid reasons for ignoring this ‘official’ advice. Unfortunately, that means many people will suffer from and die from easily treated conditions.

But ‘global’ health is in crisis because those most likely to suffer from ‘global’ health conditions are probably least likely to trust health facilities in their country. The interference of various international agencies (or local offices of international agencies) is only likely to increase this mistrust.

Nigeria has problems with ‘quack’ doctors. Nigerians escaped a serious ebola epidemic, but the second largest HIV positive population in the world resides in Nigeria. Nigeria has also swallowed the dubious claims of UNAIDS and others that HIV is almost always transmitted through heterosexual sex in Africa countries.

As a result, the country has passed punitive laws about ‘non-disclosure’, exposure and transmission, but only, it appears, when transmission is sexual.

The ebola epidemic has shown that people find it hard to trust ‘global’ health agencies. Warnings about various sexual practices and HIV have also fallen on deaf ears. But perhaps ordinary people are right to ignore ‘global’ health agencies. Perhaps bush meat and ‘corpse touching’ are either not as common or not as risky as we have been told. And perhaps the appalling conditions to be found in health facilities are much more risky than we have been told.

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.

Hepatitis, TB, HIV and Ebola: Healthcare Associated Epidemics?


It is sometimes claimed (by UNAIDS and others) that if HIV was frequently transmitted through unsafe healthcare in sub-Saharan countries, then hepatitis C (HCV) would also be common in the same countries, because HCV is usually transmitted through unsafe healthcare (dental procedures, surgery, stitches, etc). Indeed, HIV prevalence is often higher in countries that have low prevalence of HCV; and the high HCV countries tend to have low HIV prevalence.

However, given that it is well established that both viruses can be transmitted through unsafe healthcare, and that unsafe healthcare practices are probably very common in most (all?) African countries, the non-correlation between HIV and HCV prevalence seems like a very weak and unappealing argument. Because we don’t know the relative contribution of HIV transmission through unsafe healthcare, neither do we know how much transmission is a result of heterosexual sex.

Blaming high rates of HIV transmission almost exclusively on ‘unsafe’ heterosexual behavior has a number of dangerous consequences. For a start, it stigmatizes those who are already infected. It also results in people who don’t engage in ‘unsafe’ sexual practices failing to recognize their risk of being infected. More serious still, it means that public health programs aiming to influence sexual behavior will be relatively ineffective.

HCV prevalence in Egypt is the highest in the world and HIV prevalence is low. But a recent survey concludes that “Invasive medical procedures are still a major risk for acquiring new HCV infections in Egypt“. It sounds like measures to reduce transmission have not yet been completely successful. More worryingly, another paper finds that “there could be opportunities for localized HIV outbreaks and transmission of other blood-borne infections in some settings such as healthcare facilities“.

What about countries where HIV prevalence is extremely high, such as South Africa? HCV prevalence is very low, so the UNAIDS argument above would suggest that unsafe healthcare does not play a significant role in HIV transmission. But does that mean unsafe healthcare is unimportant? After all, resistant strains of TB have been transmitted in hospitals in South Africa and this has even spread beyond South Africa, to surrounding countries, and even to another continent.

In reality, we don’t know that much about HCV in the Africa region. A review of research on the subject concludes that “Africa has the highest WHO estimated regional HCV prevalence (5.3%)” in the world. That’s a striking figure, because HIV prevalence across the whole sub-Saharan African region is also around 5%. There are two serious viral pandemics on the continent that may both be driven to a large extent by unsafe healthcare.

HCV concentrates in certain countries and in parts of certain countries. But so does HIV. Prevalence is relatively low in most of Kenya, for example, only a few percent. It’s high in the two large cities, Nairobi and Mombasa, and highest in three (out of 47) counties around Lake Victoria. The situation in Tanzania is similar, with three high prevalence areas. In Burundi and Rwanda prevalence is also low, except in the capital cities.

So the fact that most high HIV prevalence areas do not overlap much with high HCV prevalence rates is not a very convincing argument that the two viruses are transmitted in completely different ways, the former being mainly transmitted through heterosexual sex and the latter through unsafe healthcare. Comparing HCV and HIV patterns only makes the contention that HIV is mostly sexually transmitted look all the more infantile.

The good news, then, is that improving healthcare safety would reduce transmission of both HCV and HIV, and even a range of other diseases that don’t get anywhere near as much attention as HIV. Good healthcare is also safe healthcare, whereas indifferent healthcare, with low standards of infection control, results in alarmingly high rates of transmission of serious diseases.

Journalists have recently had their attention drawn to the potential drawbacks of neglecting healthcare; ebola is difficult to control in a healthcare environment (as opposed to a rural village, where it appears to die out quite quickly). But it has been shown that it is difficult to control in healthcare facilities because of unsafe practices, such as reuse of skin-piercing instruments, gloves and other disposable supplies, lack of infection control procedures, a shortage of skilled personnel, etc.

One newspaper article even made a connection between ebola and HIV, suggesting that because many West African countries had relatively low HIV epidemics, investment in healthcare was lower, hence the weakness of the response to ebola.

Their analysis is not very perceptive. HIV-related investment in Sierra Leone and Liberia has been high enough to ensure that more than 80% of HIV positive people are provided with antiretroviral treatment. Guinea is way behind them in this respect, with less than 50% of people receving treatment. But spending money on preventing supposedly sexually transmitted HIV, and on treatment, does nothing to address unsafe healthcare.

HCV, HIV, ebola, TB and various other diseases can be transmitted through unsafe healthcare, so this is an argument for strengthening all health facilities in all developing countries. A human right to health does not make any sense if healthcare is so unsafe that patients risk being infected with a deadly disease when they visit a health facility. So ‘strengthening’ healthcare must include making health facilities safer.

It is hardly surprising that people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia run from health authorities and hide family members who are sick. The prospect of having your house searched by people in hazmat suits, sometimes backed up by people with guns, is frightening enough. But if your property is dragged outside in broad daylight and burned in public, and your sick relatives are hauled off to a ramshackle, understaffed, undersupplied health facility, these must extremely traumatic experiences.

If health facilities are unsafe, healthcare associated transmission of serious diseases will only increase as more people are admitted to them. Transmission rates will not go down until safety is made a priority; this applies as much to HIV as it does to HCV, ebola, TB and other diseases. The additional assurance that people will not be exposed to life-threatening diseases through unsafe healthcare should also increase demand for healthcare.