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Outbreak investigations: Facing and fixing problems


If a hospital or clinic infects you or your child with HIV, you’d probably call it a disaster. Health care bureaucrats and managers call it an “adverse event.”  How often do patients get HIV from health care in Africa? The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated it happens 50,000-100,000 times each year.  Other estimates are higher.

That’s a lot of “adverse events.” In more than 25 years, no international agency, no donor health aid program, and no African government has done the right thing to stop them.

When a department of health finds one or several unexplained HIV infections in patients that can be traced to a suspected hospital or clinic, the recommended “textbook” response is to investigate — to invite others who attended the same facility to come for tests to see how many, if any, others are infected. By finding others infected in the same outbreak, an investigation can pin-point the errors that did the damage. This alerts health care workers to fix things they didn’t know were problems, and warns patients to demand safe care. In this way, investigations save lives.

Consider the response to “adverse events” in other countries. For example, although the US health care system is not the best or safest in the world by a long shot, US state and federal governments have been doing the right thing in response to unexplained infections of hepatitis B and C virus. In health care settings, these viruses transmit just like HIV – from patient-to-patient through blood-to-blood contact when doctors and nurses reuse instruments without sterilization.

In 10 years from 1998 through 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recorded 33 investigations of hepatitis B and/or C transmission through health care in clinics, nursing homes, etc. Each investigation tested from 4 to >12,000 patients. The 33 investigations found a total of 448 hepatitis B and C infections from health care (average of 13 infections per outbreak). During the next 3 years, 2008-11, 32 investigations (including 3 from the previous list plus 29 new ones) invited a total of more than 90,000 patients to come for tests and identified a total of 217 infections (average of 7 per outbreak).

Did these investigations scare people to stay away from health care? Maybe some people got scared. But the real impact goes the other way: The fact that government is alert to investigate unexplained infections assures the public that someone is watching.

Consider the alternative – what happens when there are no investigations? Not investigating unexplained infections is like smelling smoke, ignoring it, and letting the house burn down. Or yelling at your dog to be quiet when she barks at night – and waking up to find your motorcycle missing.

Aside from a few HIV infections traced to blood transfusions, there have been no investigations of any of the thousands of recognized HIV “adverse events” in Africa. During 1991-93, for example, a WHO study in Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia identified 61 children aged 6-60 months who were HIV-positive with HIV-negative mothers. There is no report of any investigation in any of the four countries to find the source of these unexplained infections. Incredibly, the WHO study team concluded “The risk of nosocomial [hospital-acquired]…HIV infection appears low among these populations.”

Ideally, foreign experts and agencies would be at the forefront to help with investigations. That has not happened.

Lack of interest on the part of international agencies and donors leaves African governments with the task. Which government will take the lead to begin to investigate unexplained HIV infections? Investigations are not expensive in monetary terms – but they may ruffle feathers. Someone has to push — to persuade health care bureaucrats to recognize and investigate HIV “adverse events.”

Have we ignored a very simple procedure that could significantly reduce the risk of sexual transmission of HIV to men from women?


This was written together with Joseph Sonnabend [go to or return to first circumcision page]

In 2010 there was a great deal of outraged comment about the US government’s award of $823,000 to an HIV related project in Africa. Specifically, the taxpayer dollars were to be used to teach uncircumcised African men how to wash their genitals after having sex. The grant states; “If we find that men are able to practice consistent washing practices after sex, we will plan to test whether this might protect men from becoming HIV infected in a later study.”

The reasoning behind the project was based on the assumption that the reported protective effect of male circumcision was due to improved genital hygiene. This is in the project description:

“The protective effect of male circumcision on HIV acquisition may be due to improved genital hygiene. We propose to evaluate the feasibility of a post-coital genital hygiene study among men unwilling to be circumcised in Orange Farm, South Africa. Men in high prevalence settings could potentially benefit from improved genital hygiene if this intervention proved to be efficacious in reducing HIV acquisition risk” Genital hygiene was to be improved by asking men to wash their penis after sex.

Widespread criticism of such a use of public funds might have missed the main problem. As it turns out, not washing immediately after sex may actually have a significant protective effective for men at risk from heterosexual intercourse – including both circumcised and uncircumcised men

This was noted in two randomized studies of male circumcision to prevent HIV infection in the Rakai region of Uganda in 2003-2007. Although the effect of washing on HIV acquisition received some media attention at the time its relevance to HIV prevention remained generally unnoticed. It apparently also remained unnoticed or considered to be of no consequence to the applicants as well as the funders of the $823,000 grant noted above.

Combining results from these two trials, Tobian and colleagues in an article in AIDS in 2009 report information on risks for 105 HIV seroconversions in 6,396 initially HIV-negative men observed during 9,604 person years (PY) of follow-up. Half the men were circumcised for the trial and half remained uncircumcised.

These 105 HIV seroconversions represent 1.09 infections per 100 PY.

Among the questions that trial participants were asked in attempting to define risks for HIV infection was whether or not they washed their genitals after sex.

Among men who did so there were 1.35 infections per 100PY compared to only 0.38 infections per 100PY among men who did not wash their genitals. The adjusted relative risk for washing vs. not washing was 3.04 (95% confidence interval: 1.11-8.33; P = 0.031).

The authors make the following comment in their discussion,

“The finding that HIV incidence was increased with washing genitals after sexual intercourse is counterintuitive, but supports previous finding that washing the penis within 10 min of sexual intercourse increases the risk of HIV acquisition among uncircumcised men. The increased HIV acquisition with penile washing may be due to the removal of acidic vaginal secretions or the addition of water with a neutral pH may assist HIV survival and infectivity”.

The “previous finding” referred to is an earlier report by Makumbi and colleagues in 2007, who interviewed 2552 uncircumcised men enrolled in the control arm of a randomized trial of circumcision for HIV prevention in the Rakai region of Uganda (these men are included in the data reported by Tobian and colleagues in 2009). Some of the information reported by Makumbi and colleagues is shown in the last four slides in this presentation prepared by i-Base, UK.

This is one of the slides showing that there were 2.32 HIV infections per 100PY among men who washed their penis within 3 minutes of intercourse, but only 0.39 infections per 100PY among men who waited for 10 minutes or longer before washing.

If we were to express the efficacy of delayed washing in the same way that the results of PrEP trials were reported, that is as relative risk reductions, this would mean that not washing immediately, but waiting for at least 10 minutes after intercourse before washing can reduce the risk of infection by 83%. Compare this to the 44% efficacy of Truvada in the iPrEx trial, the 39 % efficacy of tenofovir gel in reducing the risk of infection in women in the Caprisa 004 trial, and the 38-66% efficacy reported for circumcision over 24 months.

Genital washing after sex may be quite common in parts of Africa. A study in Nairobi in 2004 found that a majority of men washed their genitals after sex. Here is a link to a table in the report; 60% of men reported always washing their genitals after sex.

We have had evidence that this practice may contribute to the risk of HIV infection in men since 2007. We have to wonder if the many questions this raises have been addressed, or even considered.

Could the practice of immediate post-coital genital washing contribute to the risk of sexual transmission of HIV to men?

Are there regional variations in this practice, and could this be related to HIV prevalence to some extent?

Should there be a debate on the evidence by experts, with recommendations for further research – such as adding questions to on-going or proposed studies, laboratory testing of HIV viability in semen and vaginal fluids at body temperature or conducting a trial to nail down the risk of immediate washing, or in other words, the protective effect of delayed washing?

If immediate washing increases the risk of infection does this not raise the question of the extent to which infection occurs after withdrawal?

Considering how innocuous the intervention is do we have sufficient evidence now to advise African men at risk of HIV through heterosexual contact not to clean their penis for at least 10 minutes after sex? Should a dry cloth without water or soap be used?

The study teams for these trials have more information on post-coital penis cleaning that they have not reported. We know that for uncircumcised men, wiping was safer than washing, and waiting at least 10 minutes to clean significantly reduced risk for HIV (see the last several slides in this reference. But we don’t have similar details for circumcised men. What information has been collected but not reported?

We have evidence that a common practice, at least in certain regions can substantially increase the risk of HIV infection in men through heterosexual intercourse. Considerable attention has been given to newer prevention methods in the past few years, notably pre – exposure prophylaxis and male circumcision, but almost none to the simplest of procedures that may be even more effective in preventing the sexual transmission of HIV.

Many other questions and concerns will no doubt arise as more people look at the evidence, and figure out what to do about it. Lives are at stake. Scientific competence and integrity are also at stake – researchers have overlooked and/or incompletely reported information that could save lives.

Lessons from North American outbreaks – changing needles alone is not enough


[go to first injections page] [Note: Stephen F. Minkin (sfminkin@yahoo.com) submitted the following as a guest blog.]

The CDC [US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] first reported on four large outbreaks of hepatitis B and hepatitis C at outpatient medical facilities between 2000 and 2002. Two outbreaks occurred in a private physician’s offices in New York, one at an Oklahoma pain remediation center, and one at a hematology/oncology clinic in Nebraska. A total of 247 patients were known to have been infected at these facilities.

In addition, unsafe practices were uncovered at a phlebotomy center in California in 2001, where needles for drawing blood were reused. As a result, 15,000 people had to be tested for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C.

Two more recent outbreaks discovered in Nevada and New York garnered considerable media attention. In November 2007, reports surfaced that a New York anesthesiologist reused syringes when withdrawing medicine from multi-dose vials. In the process he potentially exposed thousands of patients to blood-borne viruses. On December 14, 2007 the New York Department of Health contacted approximately 8,500 patients exposed by this practice and urged them to be tested for Hepatitis and HIV.

On February 29, 2008 health officials in Las Vegas closed the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada after six patients were diagnosed with hepatitis C.  The outbreak was traced to nurse anesthetists reusing syringes to draw up medicine from single use vials for multiple patients.

According to the CDC,

A clean needle and syringe were used to draw medication from a single-use vial of propofol, a short acting intravenous anesthetic agent.  The medicine was injected directly through an intravenous catheter into the patient’s arm.  If a patient required more sedation, the needle was removed from the syringe and replaced with a new needle; the new needle and old syringe was used to draw more medication.

This was a “common practice” at this center for at least 4 years. As a result 40,000 patients were potentially exposed to this risk of hepatitis and HIV infections.

The CDC suggests two possible ways the syringes could have been contaminated.

Backflow from the patient’s intravenous catheter or from needle removal might have contaminated the syringe with HCV (hepatitis C) and subsequently contaminated the vial. Medication remaining in the vial was used to sedate the next patient.

Investigators concluded that each of these outbreaks resulted from “unsafe injection practices primarily the reuse of syringes and needles or contamination of multiple-dose vials leading to patient to patient transmission” (page 901 in this link).

The changing of needles while reusing the syringe is very, very risky and is not a WHO recommended practice (page 35 in this link).

The 2002 Oklahoma outbreak was traced back to a nurse anesthetist supervised by an anesthesiologist at a hospital outpatient clinic. In response the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) mailed copies of the AANA Infection Control Guidelines to its members

The organization also hired a research firm to conduct a random telephone survey of Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) and anesthesiologists “to learn more about practices and attitudes on needle and syringe reuse.”  A spokesperson termed the finding as “eye opening.”

Among the different categories of health professionals surveyed, 3 percent of anesthesiologists who responded indicated they reuse needles and/or syringes on multiple patients. CRNAs, other physicians, nurses and oral surgeons reported reuse at 1 percent or less.

Extrapolating the survey findings – 3 percent of anesthesiologists plus 1 per cent of CRNAs – equated in 2002 to approximately 1,000 anesthesia professionals who might have been exposing more than a million patients to the risks of contaminated needles and syringes.

They were forced to revisit the problem of the reuse because of the events in New York and Nevada. On March 6, 2008, Dr. Wanda Wilson, the AANA President, commented on the sad state of affairs.

It is astounding that in this day and age there are still nurse anesthetists, anesthesiologists and other health professionals who still risk using needles and syringes on more than one patient, or know of such activities and don’t report them. Published standards and guidelines dictate that single-use and disposal of these products is the best way to ensure patient safety. Patient safety is our primary focus – not cost savings, time savings, or any other factor

If the hepatitis C outbreaks in New York and Nevada demonstrated anything, it was that such incidents occur regardless of a provider’s degree, credentials, or title.  For any group to suggest otherwise is to put its collective head in the sand—it is irresponsible, negligent, and a sure invitation for yet another Nevada or New York situation to occur.

A 1990 study by Canadian researchers experimentally examined the risk of cross infection related to the multiple use of disposable syringes connected to IV tubing during anesthesia.  The authors were motivated because  “the practice of reusing disposable plastic syringes for several patients is still prevalent in North American operating rooms despite warnings about possible hazards.”

In some operating rooms, the usual practice is to reuse disposable syringes while changing needles.  This practice is based on the assumption, that since only needles enter the injection site, it is the only part that can be contaminated.  A high proportion of reused syringes were contaminated even if only the needle had contact with blood.  The probable mechanism of contamination is by aspiration into the syringe of blood remaining in the needle because of the negative pressure generated while removing the needle.

In view of these finding the authors emphasized that “changing needles alone is a useless procedure to prevent contamination.”

CDC PUBLIC HEALTH SYRINGE ADVISORY

Wait and wipe, don’t cut


[go to or return to first circumcision page]

Last week, while looking for something else, I ran across a report that has big implications for HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa: Almost five years ago, a trial of circumcision to protect men in Rakai, Uganda, reported that intact (uncircumcised) men who waited at least 10 minutes after sex before cleaning their penis were at less risk to get HIV than men who had been circumcised: intact men who waited to clean got HIV at the rate of 0.39% per year compared to 0.66% per year for circumcised men. Although the study team reported these results to an international AIDS conference in 2007, and several newspapers wrote about it at the time, the report has dropped out of view. That is a big mistake.

Why is this report important? Here are three reasons.

First, if you are intact, this report says you don’t need to get circumcised to reduce your risk to get HIV. Use a condom, of course, if your partner has or might have HIV. But if that fails, this report says you are as safe with a foreskin as you would be without one. Just don’t clean your penis for at least 10 minutes after sex, and then wipe it with a dry cloth, without water. A later report from the Uganda study team suggests waiting to clean is good for all men, both circumcised and intact: men who didn’t “wash genitals after sexual intercourse” got HIV less than 1/3rd as fast as men who did.

Second, if you are a politician or public health official who is considering whether to go along with the largely US-promoted program to circumcise 20 million African men by 2015, you can take another close look at the evidence and options. The evidence that advocates use to promote circumcision comes from three studies (in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda during 2002-06) that recruited thousands of intact, HIV-negative men, circumcised some and not others, and then followed and retested them to see who got HIV. All three studies reported that circumcised men got less HIV. But the study team for at least one of those trials – the trial in Uganda – has data showing that intact men who waited to clean after sex got less HIV than circumcised men.

Circumcision is expensive and dangerous and takes doctors and nurses away from other tasks. Why put scarce public resources into campaigns to circumcise millions of men if you can get the same results by advising men to use condoms, and if that fails to wait least 10 minutes after sex before wiping their penis with a dry cloth?

Third, this is another example of people reporting important evidence that contradicts well-funded misinformation about HIV risks. WHO, USAID, and other organizations pay for a lot of messages – some are true and helpful, but some are at best only partial truths. It’s important for people to speak up when they have good information about how to avoid HIV risks, even though what they say disagrees with the official “line” at the time.

Here are some examples of truth meeting official misinformation.

WHO warns UN employees they might get HIV from health care in Africa, but doesn’t warn the African public. But not everyone goes along with such misinformation. For example, Demographic and Health Surveys finds and reports HIV-positive children with HIV-negative mothers (in Mozambique, Swaziland, and Uganda) and virgin men and women with HIV. As more people speak up, Africans hear that a lot of infections come from minor blood exposures, and learn how to protect themselves.

Another example of official misinformation is WHO’s continuing promotion of Depo-provera injections for birth control without warning Africans that good evidence shows – and many experts believe – using Depo-provera increases a woman’s risk for HIV. One expert who has spoken out – eloquently and repeatedly – on this issue is Paula Donovan, a former high-ranking UNICEF official, who has had the heart and courage to challenge official misinformation.

Circumcision is another issue with a lot of well-funded misinformation, but also with many people speaking out to set the record straight (eg, see the article by Daniel Ncayiyana, editor of the South African Medical Journal, in this link). Unfortunately, crucial evidence is still unreported from the three key trials of circumcision to protect men: A lot of men in the trials got HIV despite no reported sex partners – what were their risks? None of the three study teams has reported the HIV status of any of the men’s sex partners, and only two have reported minimal information about blood exposures.

As for waiting and wiping to reduce HIV risk, here’s the record of partial and incomplete information from the 2003-06 trial of circumcision to protect men in Rakai, Uganda:

13 December 2006: The US National Institutes of Health reported that men circumcised in the trial had 48% lower HIV incidence compared to intact men, WITH NO MENTION OF POST-COITAL CLEANING.

24 Feb 2007: The Uganda study team reports selected trial data in Lancet, concluding: “Male circumcision reduced HIV incidence in men… Circumcision can be recommended for HIV prevention in men.” THE ARTICLE MAKES NO MENTION OF WAITING TO CLEAN, WHICH THE TEAM’S UNDISCLOSED DATA SHOWED TO BE MORE EFFECTIVE THAN CIRCUMCISION.

28 March 2007: WHO announces recommendations from an experts’ meeting: “Based on the evidence presented…experts attending the consultation recommended that male circumcision now be recognized as an additional important intervention to reduce the risk of heterosexually acquired HIV infection in men.” SEVERAL MEMBERS FROM THE UGANDA STUDY TEAM TOOK PART IN THE MEETING. THERE IS NO INDICATION THEY TOLD ANYONE ABOUT THEIR UNDISCLOSED EVIDENCE THAT WAITING TO CLEAN WAS MORE EFFECTIVE THAN CIRCUMCISION IN PROTECTING INTACT MEN FROM HIV.

25 July 2007: Frederick Makumbi and several other members of the Uganda study team tell an international AIDS conference: Among intact men reporting post-coital cleaning with all partners, “HIV incidence was significantly higher among those reporting cleansing within 3 minutes (2.32/100 py [person-years]), compared to those reporting a delay of more than 10 minutes (0.39/100py [person-years…).” (The best source i have found for these data is the last several slides in this link.)

So there you have it: In December 2006, the Uganda study team reported that circumcised men got less HIV than intact men. Not until 8 months later, in July 2007, did they disclose evidence that intact men who waited to clean their penises got less HIV than circumcised men. Despite their 2007 report, the Uganda study team has continued to say that circumcision is the way to go, and has said nothing more about waiting to clean as an effective option to reduce HIV risk for intact men.

Africans facing HIV risks from both blood exposures and sex need good information. Well-funded official fountains of stigmatizing misinformation blame Africa’s HIV epidemics on too much sex and too many foreskins. But there are also a lot of people offering good information and evidence. As more people speak up – telling what they know about HIV risks, even if it does not coincide with the party line – the African public will get a better idea about HIV risks and how to protect themselves.

SAVE families, stop HIV!


The International (formerly African) Network of Religious Leaders living with or Affected by HIV/AIDS (INERELA+) promotes SAVE as a response to Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic. SAVE stands for: Safe sexual and skin-piercing behavior; Access to treatment; Voluntary counseling and testing; and Empowerment. This note considers some of the ways that SAVE could strengthen HIV prevention in Africa.

AIDS was first recognized in Africa in 1982. In 2010, 28 years later, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 22.9 million Africans were living with HIV, including 1.9 million with new infections in that year. These infections are not distributed evenly. The people most at risk live in cities in 15 countries, primarily in Southern and Eastern Africa. In these cities, from 20% to more than 50% of men and women aged 15 years today can expect to get HIV at some time during their lives.

Help husbands and wives stop intra-familial HIV transmission

Unlike Western countries, where almost all HIV transmission occurs outside families, a lot of HIV transmission in Africa happens within families – mother-to-child and spouse-to-spouse transmission together account for an estimated 45% of new infections.

(a) Mother-to-child transmission: According to WHO estimates, 390,000 babies in Africa got HIV from HIV-positive mothers in 2010, accounting for an estimated 20% of 1.9 million new HIV infections in Africa in that year (390,000/1,900,000 = 20.5%, rounded to 20%).

(b) Spouse-to-spouse transmission: An estimated 30% of all HIV-positive adults in Africa are married to HIV-negative partners, and the resultant spouse-to-spouse transmission accounts for approximately 470,000 HIV infections per year, equivalent to 25% of all new infections each year (470,000/1,900,000 = 25%). (A note at the end of this blog shows the source of these data and explains this estimate.)

Most Western experts continue to identify high risk groups in Africa, as in the US and Europe, according to extramarital sex – prostitutes, clients, truck drivers, and youth are considered to be at high risk because they have more than average levels of extramarital sex. But in Africa, none of these groups defined by extramarital sex has risks as high as babies born to HIV-positive mothers (without treatment, 35% are infected in 2 years) or spouses not aware their partners are HIV-positive partners (8% per year). In other words, the term “high risk groups” in Africa applies first and foremost to persons with intra-familial risks.

With good information and with some medical assistance husbands and wives can work together to stop 700,000 infections per year – reducing mother-to-child transmission by 320,000 (from 390,000 to 70,000) and spouse-to-spouse transmission by 380,000 (from 470,000 to 90,000; see the note at the end of this blog). This would reduce total HIV transmission from all causes by 37% – from 1.9 million to 1.2 million infections per year. There are two major challenges to achieve this outcome.

The first challenge is to reform and extend couple counseling. A lot of men and women don’t think they could have HIV because they and their partner have had very conservative sex lives. Many women who test HIV-positive are afraid to tell their husbands and/or assume they got it from their husbands, so there is no reason to tell them. The best way to overcome these testing problems is to make it clear – both in public messages as well as in counseling – that a lot of HIV in Africa comes from blood exposures. This is important for couples to know – it means an HIV infection is not a reliable sign of sexual behavior. It also means that conservative sexual behavior provides no assurance that anyone is HIV-negative.

It will take some work to get people to realize that their own or their spouse’s HIV infection might well have come from a skin-piercing event, because this realization has to overcome several decades of stigmatizing and misleading half-truths – blaming victims for their infections rather than acknowledging that unsafe health care has been an important part of the problem.

Once husbands and wives can go get tested and talk with each other about their HIV test results without distrust and blame generating family crises, then couples will be better able to plan for what to do to protect babies and uninfected spouses, and to care for those who are infected. Aside from changing messages to de-link HIV from sex, testing should be readily available, with or without counseling. People should be able to buy kits to test themselves (as in South Africa). Opt-out testing is a good way to go. However, compulsory testing is almost always a bad idea.

The second challenge is for governments and donors to prioritize prevention of mother-to-child transmission in allocating scarce resources for HIV prevention. Protecting babies will take a lot of money and medical personnel. This requires: testing pregnant women; testing husbands to get them involved; giving anti-viral drugs to HIV-positive women and their new babies; and helping HIV-positive mothers wean early (after 6 months is a common recommendation, but some may want to do so earlier or later). With these interventions, infected mothers will infect less than 5% of their babies, which would cut the annual number of infections from mother-to-child by an estimated 320,000 (from 26% to 4.5% of babies born to 1,490,000 HIV-positive mothers). Even lower rates of mother-to-child transmission can be achieved with anticipated new drugs or other options.

Whereas preventing mother-to-child transmission requires substantial assistance from outside the family, once husbands and wives know one of them is HIV-positive, they can protect the HIV-negative partner with little or no outside assistance. Condoms are almost 100% effective against sexual transmission (some studies reporting lower efficacy did not consider that condom-users might have gotten HIV from bloodborne risks). If the HIV-positive partner is eligible for antiretroviral treatment and achieves a low viral load, unprotected sex may be safe. If the wife is HIV-positive, circumcising the husband might reduce his risk, but he would not be safe without other protection (eg, condoms). Couples must also take care to avoid blood-to-blood contact through shared razors, toothbrushes, syringes and needles, etc.

Stopping HIV from getting into families

Extra-familial HIV transmission threatens families as well. Some men but many more women get HIV before they are married and bring it into the marriage. But that’s not all – even among old married couples, most couples with HIV are discordant. Husbands and wives continue to import HIV into marriages. According to Western ideas about HIV epidemics that have been imposed on Africa, all these infections come from sex. But those ideas don’t fit facts. Surveys find a lot of HIV in babies with HIV-negative mothers, in young and old virgins, and in men and women married for years with no outside partners and an HIV-positive spouse.

The best way to protect families from outside risks is to warn them about all risks, from blood contacts as well as from sex. African governments could improve these warnings by belatedly asking researchers and investigators to trace a lot of HIV infections to their source to see what risks are infecting babies, young women, etc — including especially people with limited and no sexual risks.

Conclusion: focus on the family

Whereas HIV in the US and Europe has been a tragedy for men who have sex with men and has largely avoided families, in Africa it hits families hard – weakening and killing husbands and wives, interfering with child-bearing, killing babies, taking huge expenses for treatment, and threatening family trust.

African families are strong and can carry much more of the burden to fight the epidemic. To do so, they need honest information – that an unknown but important proportion of infections comes from unsterilized instruments in health care and cosmetic services. Such messages not only allow people to see and avoid risks, but also make is easier for husbands and wives to test and to share HIV test results – the foundation for intra-familial HIV prevention.

Enlisting families to cut intra-familial transmission and supporting them with programs to prevent mother-to-child transmission could cut HIV transmission in Africa by an estimated 700,000 infections per year (37% of total transmission). This can be achieved with available budgets and personnel; but because these resources are limited, governments and donors would have to prioritize. One program that competes for money and personnel asks for $1.5 billion$2.7 billion and several thousand surgical teams to circumcise 20 million men by 2015. Critics argue, inter alia, that condoms are more reliable. But even if one ignores the critics, circumcision looks like an expensive distraction: even advocates estimate the 20 million circumcisions would reduce annual HIV transmission by less than 200,000 (10% of total transmissions) in 2015 – far less than can be achieved with the intra-familial focus proposed in this note.

Statistical note: According to WHO, 19.8 of the total 22.9 million Africans living with HIV in 2010 were adults (page 210 of this link). From national surveys in several dozen African countries over the last decade, the percentage of adults with HIV who are married ranges from roughly 53%-77% for men and 49%-69% for women (see Table below). From the same source, the percentage of adults with HIV who are married to HIV-negative partners ranges from roughly 10%-25% in the worst epidemics in Southern Africa to 25%-35% in mid-range epidemics in East Africa, to 50% in countries with low level epidemics (see Table below).

From these data, an estimated 5.9 million HIV-positive adults (30% of 19.8 million adults) are married to HIV-negative spouses. In studies that followed discordant couples who were not aware of their infections, approximately 8% of HIV-positive partners infected their spouses each year. Thus, 5.9 million HIV-positive adults in discordant couples infect an estimated 470,000 spouses each year (0.08 x 590,000 = 470,000). Assuming that expanded testing and couple counseling reaches all discordant couples, and that they use condoms and take other precautions to cut spouse-to-spouse transmission from 8% to 1.5% per year, this would reduce annual spouse-to-spouse HIV transmission in Africa by 380,000 per year, from 470,000 to 90,000.

Table: HIV in adults, married adults, and married adults with HIV-negative partners (selected countries in Africa)

Country year Sex % adults who are HIV+ % HIV+ who are married Among married HIV+ people, % with a spouse who is HIV- % of HIV+ people with a spouse who is HIV-
A B C = AxB
DR Congo 2007 Men 0.9 53 75 40
Women

1.6

66

85

56

Burkina Faso 2003 Men 1.9 75 70 53
Women

1.8

68

70

48

Ethiopia 2005 Men 0.9 77 73 56
Women

1.9

54

77

42

Ghana 2003 Men 1.5 75 62 47
Women

2.7

67

60

40

Tanzania 2007-08 Men 4.6 70 58 41
Women

6.6

59

53

31

Uganda 2004-05 Men 5.0 72 45 32
Women

7.5

50

35

18

Kenya 2008-09 Men 4.3 67 47 31
Women

8.0

49

53

26

Mozambique 2009 Men 9.2 74 52 39
Women

13.1

60

51

31

Zambia 2007 Men 12.3 56 45 25
Women

16.1

69

37

26

Lesotho 2009 Men 18.0 65 33 21
Women

26.7

53

28

15

Swaziland 2006-07 Men 19.7 54 21 11
Women

31.1

43

23

10

Source: data are from country surveys available at this link; click on the country, and then on DHS (Demographic and Health Survey) or AIS (AIDS information surveys.

Respecting women’s human rights by telling them about all their HIV risks


(A posting for International Women’s Day, 8 March)

For many years, WHO, USAID, UNAIDS, and other international and foreign aid organizations have misinformed women in Africa about risks for HIV. Experts inside and outside these organization have challenged bureaucrats to tell women what they need to know to protect themselves. But to no avail.

WHO, USAID, and other official organizations have blocked three messages that could help HIV-negative women to avoid HIV and help HIV-positive women to retain family trust: (a) Depo-Provera injections for birth control may boost women’s risk for HIV; (b) skin-piercing procedures in health care may infect women with HIV; and (a) an HIV infection is not a reliable sign of sexual behavior.

(a) Risks with Depo-Provera injections

Beginning in the early 1990s, studies that followed and re-tested HIV-negative women to see who got HIV found that women taking Depo-Provera got HIV faster than other women (Depo-Provera, injected every 3 months, mimics the hormone progesterone). As early as 1996, the South African Medical Journal reported high level debates about whether to promote Depo-Provera in Africa.

Evidence of risk to women had no apparent impact on donors’ efforts to inject hormones into African women. From 1996 to 2009, the number of women given hormone injections (primarily Depo-Provera) increased across Africa, especially in countries with the worst HIV epidemics. For example, among partnered women aged 15-49 years, the percentage using injected hormones increased from 5.5% to 17% in Swaziland, from 12% to 19% in Lesotho, from 20% to 28% in South Africa, and from 7.7% to 22% in Namibia. These rates are extraordinary on a world scale – outside Africa, only 3.1% of partnered women used injected hormones for birth control in 2009.

HIV is not the only health threat linked to Depo-Provera. In 2004, the United States (US) Food and Drug Administration forced Pfizer, the company that makes Depo-Provera, to add a “black box” warning to packages of Depo-Provera sold in the US: “Women who use Depo-Provera Contraceptive Injection may lose significant bone mineral density… Depo-Provera Contraceptive Injection should be used as a long-term birth control method (eg, longer than 2 years) only if other birth control methods are inadequate…”

Despite evidence linking Depo-Provera to HIV (and other health risks), WHO designates Depo-Provera as safe for general use (except for women with specific serious health problems, such as heart disease or breast cancer). WHO’s claim that Depo-Provera is safe came under renewed criticism in July 2011, when a study among discordant couples (one partner infected with HIV, the other not infected) in Africa reported that women using injected hormones were more than two times as likely to get HIV compared to women not using hormones for birth control.

WHO didn’t budge. Seven months later, in early 2012, WHO declared the new evidence – along with all previous evidence – to be inconclusive. WHO reissued its advice that “women…at high risk of HIV can safely continue to use hormonal contraceptives.” WHO’s only nod to the evidence was to say “women using progestogen-only injectable contraception [primarily Depo-Provera] should be strongly advised to also always use condoms…”

Why would WHO not warn women? Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and a long-time former UNICEF and UN official, explains that UN officials “were afraid that African women might abandon hormonal contraceptives altogether” leading to “more pregnancies…more maternal deaths…unsafe abortions” and more infected babies. Citing and quoting several UN documents about women’s rights, Donovan charges that “WHO and UNAIDS have violated [women’s] human rights by withholding the information. They have failed to inform women that using hormonal contraceptives may carry some risk… Women have the right to make fully informed sexual and reproductive health decisions, whether or not the UN likes those decisions.”

In a later publication, Donovan reminds those who wish to promote specific birth control methods that “No global experts or family planning organizations have the right to censor the life-and-death information women need in order to weigh their own risks… Women need information: complete, uncensored, and factually correct.”

(b) Risks to get HIV from skin-piercing health care procedures

Just as international and foreign aid organizations don’t warn women in Africa about evidence that Depo-Provera increases their risk to get HIV, these organizations also don’t warn them about risks to get HIV from reused and unsterilized instruments during skin-piercing health care procedures.

From the time AIDS was first recognized in Africa in 1982, there has been a lot of evidence that women have gotten HIV during health care. National surveys find that many clinics and hospitals do not sterilize instruments. Studies link HIV to injections, operations, blood tests, and other skin-piercing procedures. And studies and surveys report unexpected infections – for example, among women aged 15-49 years in Congo (Brazzaville) in 2009, more women who claimed to be virgins were HIV positive (4.2%) than all women (4.1%).

It’s clear from what WHO and UNAIDS tell UN employees that pretty much everyone throughout the UN system knows that health care available to the African public sometimes transmits HIV. In a 2004 booklet for UN employees, WHO and UNAIDS warn (p. 9): “In several regions, unsafe blood collection and transfusion practices and the use of contaminated syringes account for a notable share of new infections.” But, “[b]ecause we are UN employees, we and our families are able to receive medical services in safe healthcare settings, where only sterile syringes and medical equipment are used, eliminating any risk to you of HIV transmission as a result of health care.”

Outside an approved clinic or hospital, WHO advises UN employees to (p. 23): “Avoid any procedures that pierce the skin, such as acupuncture and dental work, unless they are genuinely necessary. Before submitting to any treatment that may give an entry point to HIV, ask whether the instruments to be used have been properly sterilized.”

These organizations do not extend similar warnings and advice to African women. Just as not warning women about risks with Depo-Provera violates their human rights, similarly not warning women about risks to get HIV from unsterile instruments in health care violates their human rights.

(c) An HIV infection is not a reliable sign of sexual (mis)behavior 

Surveys and studies routinely find HIV-positive women who report no sexual exposure to HIV – some say they are virgins, others have an HIV-negative spouse and report no other sexual partners. The almost universal response to these findings by study teams has been that women lied – no matter what they said, they got HIV from sex.

By routinely disbelieving women, researchers protect and preserve the theory that almost all HIV in African women comes from sex. This theory – which grew out of racial stereotypes of sexual behavior and survives despite evidence – guides HIV prevention messages to misinform Africans that almost all HIV infections in adults come from sex.

What happens next completes a circle of distrust: These messages encourage men who are HIV-negative to think their HIV-positive wives got HIV from sex, no matter what their wives say (and similarly, encourage wives to think HIV-positive husbands were unfaithful). This is not a trivial matter. Most African couples living with HIV are discordant – only one is infected. Among discordant couples, the wife is equally likely to be HIV-positive as the husband.

Telling men and women in discordant couples that HIV surely comes from sex is like the town trouble-maker telling people their husband or wife is running around when there’s no evidence that’s so. An HIV infection is not enough evidence to show a wife was unfaithful. Many African women get HIV from health care. HIV prevention messages that focus only on sex add insult to injury, encouraging husbands, families, and friends to blame them for sexual misbehavior.

Conclusion: Getting good information to women is a do-it-yourself challenge

If international and foreign aid organizations waste – misuse – their money to misinform women about risks, that’s too bad. But let’s not let a bunch of irresponsible bureaucrats get in the way. Women’s lives are at stake. We can get these three messages to women through churches, NGOs, community groups, unions, and just talking to friends. Even bureaucrats who keep their jobs by telling approved official half-truths during working hours can pass these messages privately to friends and other contacts. Abraham Lincoln, the US president who ended slavery, said: “You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time, but not all the people all the time.” So despite the well-funded official half-truths from too many places, let’s take heart, and do what we can to get life-saving messages to women.

Denied, withheld, and uncollected evidence and unethical research cloud what really happened during three key trials of circumcision to protect men


[go to or return to first circumcision page]

Advocates for circumcising millions of men to curb Africa’s HIV epidemics claim the program is based on sound evidence from well-done scientific studies. Advocates cite three key studies – in South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda — to say that circumcising men reduced the rate at which they got HIV by more than 50% by reducing their risk to get HIV from sexual partners.

But that’s not what the studies found. To expose the confusion about what these studies show, let’s start with what they did and what they reported.

South Africa study: The first study to report was carried out in South Africa during 2002-05. The study team solicited men willing to be circumcised, then on a random basis assigned half the men to an intervention group to be circumcised first and the other half to a control group to remain intact (uncircumcised) until the end of the study. The study team then followed and retested the men – circumcised and intact – at scheduled visits over as long as 2 years.

During follow-up, 20 men in the intervention (circumcision) group got HIV at the rate of 0.85% per year, while 49 men in the control (intact) group got HIV at the rate of 2.11% per year. If all the men’s infections came from sex, this is good evidence that circumcision cuts men’s risk to get HIV from sexual partners from 2.11% to 0.85% per year.

But did all or even most infections come from sex? Not according to evidence the study collected and reported. Twenty-three of the 69 men with new infections said they had no sexual partner or always used condoms from their last HIV-negative test to their first HIV-positive test. Men reporting no sexual risks got HIV at the rate of 1.11% per year. If these men are telling the truth, they apparently got HIV from blood during injections, dental care, tattooing, and other skin-piercing events. If men with no sexual risks got HIV from blood, it’s likely that men with sexual risks also got at least some of their HIV infections from blood contact. The rate of getting new HIV infections in men who reported at least one unprotected (without a condom) sex event was 1.86% per year, only 0.75% faster than for men reporting no sexual risks. The modestly faster rate to get HIV in men with vs without sexual risks explains less than 1/3 of the men’s infections (using standard epidemiologic analyses and terms, the crude population attributable fraction of incident HIV associated with having any vs no unprotected sex is 27%).

The study team could have done a better job identifying the sources of men’s infections if they had asked more questions and reported more data. But where is the failure? Did they not ask, or are they not telling? Like most studies on HIV risk in Africa, this study has not provided public access to collected raw data (with safeguards to protect participants’ confidentiality). Also, like most studies on HIV risk in Africa, this study has not disclosed its questionnaire and data collection forms – so there is no public record of what information they collected and chose not to report (chose to withhold).

From the published record, it’s likely that some crucial evidence about sexual risks was simply not collected – for example, there is no indication the study team traced and tested any of the men’s sexual partners. There were not a lot of partners to trace: 4 men with spouses got HIV, and 55 men who reported 0-1 non-spousal partners got HIV.

As for estimating how many infections came from blood exposures, the study team could have done this by asking men what skin-piercing procedures they had and then looking to see if men reporting various procedures were more likely to get HIV vs men without those procedures. The study reported two measures of health care exposure in men with and without HIV infection. According to one measure, men who “attended a clinic for a health problem related to the genitals” were 6.8 times more likely to get HIV than men without this risk. According to the other measure, men who reported injections and/or transfusion and/or hospitalization were 1.7 times more likely to get HIV than men who reported none of those events (see Authors’ reply in this link).

Notably, both reported measures of possible exposure to HIV through skin-piercing procedures had a bigger impact on a man’s risk to get HIV than did possible exposure to HIV during sex (having any vs no unprotected sex). The study’s reported measures of blood-borne risks are vague: The study team has not said what procedures men got at clinics treating genital health problems. The team has also not reported HIV incidence separately for injections, for transfusions, and for hospitalizations. The study has not reported other skin-piercing health care procedures, such as infusions or dental care, and we don’t even know if they collected such information. The study has also not reported any data on skin-piercing cosmetic procedures; did they ask?

Table 1: What information on sex and blood risks did the three studies collect and report for men with and without new HIV infections?

Risks for HIV South Africa, 2002-05 Kenya, 2002-06 Uganda, 2003-06
Blood-borne risks
Injections Collected but not reported Unknown Unknown
Transfusion Collected but not reported Unknown Unknown
Hospitalization Collected but not reported Unknown Unknown
Injections, transfusions and/or hospitalization RR=1.7 Unknown Unknown
Visiting a clinic for a genital health problem RR=6.8 Unknown Unknown
Infusions Unknown Unknown Unknown
Dental care Unknown Unknown Unknown
Scarification Unknown Unknown Unknown
Other blood risks Unknown Unknown Unknown
Sexual risks
Any vs. no partners Collected but not reported Collected but not reported RR=2.4
<100% condom use Collected but not reported Collected but not reported RR=1.1
Any vs no partners or <100% condom use RR=1.7 Collected but not reported RR=1.6
Any vs no non-spouse partner Collected but not reported Collected but not reported Collected but not reported
HIV status of spouse Not collected Not collected Collected but not reported
HIV status of non-spouse partners Not collected Not collected Not collected

Sources: see references in the text. RR: crude hazard ratio (calculated as the rate of getting HIV with the risk divided by the rate without the risk).  

Kenya study: The Kenya study, 2002-06, was similar in design to the South Africa study. The study circumcised some men, then followed and retested circumcised and intact men for as long as two years to see who got HIV. Nineteen men in the intervention (circumcised) group got HIV at the rate of 1.9% over two years, while 46 men in the control (intact) group got HIV at the rate of 4.1% over two years.

How many of the 65 men got HIV from sex? The study reports information on sexual behavior vs HIV for only 7 men infected during the first three months of follow-up. Five of these seven men reported no sexual partners from the time they entered the trial (using sensitive tests, the study could not find HIV in blood collected then) until their first HIV-positive test after 1-3 months. Four of the men with early infections had been circumcised in the study clinic. All four were found with HIV one month after their circumcision; three reported no sexual partners in that month. Contaminated local anesthetic or contaminated instruments could have infected the men during circumcision – the study team could have investigated the possibility, but there is no indication they did so.

What about the other 58 infections? The study asked men about sexual partners and condom use throughout the trial, but does not report this information for men with and without new HIV infections. The study team has said nothing about tracing and testing men’s sexual partners – did they do it and not report it, or just not do it?

As for blood-borne risks, the study says nothing – no report of what data were collected, and no disclosure of any collected data. This is a glaring oversight, because the study team had in hand evidence linking HIV in the community to blood risks. Among men tested as part of the process to recruit men for the trial, those who reported skin-piercing procedures were more likely to be HIV-positive (and thus not eligible for the trial). Specifically, men who reported one or more injections in the previous six months were 2.0 time more likely to be HIV-positive vs other men; men who had ever been tattooed were 2.2 times more likely to be infected; men who had ever received saro (traditional blood-letting) were 2.0 times more likely to be infected; and men who reported “blood exchange” were 18.6 times more likely to be HIV-positive.

Uganda study: The study in Uganda, 2003-06, followed the same design as studies in South Africa and Kenya: assigning men randomly to be circumcised or to remain intact, then following them for as long as long as two years to see who got HIV. Twenty-two men in the intervention (circumcised) group got HIV at the rate of 0.66% per year, and 45 men in the control (intact) group got HIV at the rate of 1.33% per year.

But how did the men get HIV? Six men with new HIV infections reported having no sex partners during the period between their last negative and first HIV-positive test. Ten others with new infections reported always using condoms. Taken together, the 16 men who reported no possible sexual exposure to HIV got HIV at the rate of 0.72% per year – presumably from skin-piercing events that exposed them to HIV in blood. Men who reported any unprotected sex acquired HIV at the rate of 1.17% per year, only 0.45% per year faster than men reporting no sexual risks. As in South Africa, the marginally faster rate at which men who reported sexual risks got HIV explains less than a third of the infections observed during the trial (using standard epidemiologic analyses and terms, the crude population attributable fraction of incident HIV associated with having any vs no unprotected sex is 29%).

Unlike the other two studies, the Uganda study team traced and tested most of the men’s wives (and other long-term partners) for HIV; this was done as part of a parallel study of the impact of circumcision on men’s and women’s risks for other diseases. However, the study did not report the wives’ HIV status for men who did and did not acquire HIV infection; this is important information, because married men accounted for about half of the infections. Did they get HIV from HIV-positive wives? The study team is sitting on that information. The study team has also not reported how many men with HIV-negative wives got HIV despite no reported non-spousal partners.

Based on the study team’s partial disclosure of collected information on sexual risks, most infections came from skin-piercing events. To determine the sources of the men’s infection, it is relevant to know about skin-piercing events in men who did and did not get HIV. However, as in the Kenya study, the Uganda study team provides no report of what data were collected on skin-piercing procedures, and discloses no collected data on skin-piercing procedures.

Ethical short-comings: The three studies treated research participants in ways that would not be allowed in the US and France, the countries that funded the studies.

The South Africa study recruited men and the Uganda study recruited wives without insisting they hear their HIV test results. Neither study has said how many people the study followed who did not hear their results. This would not be allowed in the US, where a condition of recruitment in studies that follow people to see who gets HIV is that participants must be willing to hear their test results.

The design of the Uganda study allowed the study team to follow wives who did not know they were HIV-positive to watch them infect men who did not know they were at risk. The study allowed this to happen because it tested and recruited wives without insisting they hear their test results, and without insisting they share those results with their husbands. This would also not be allowed in the US – where regulations ask that doctors and counselors warn spouses if the HIV-positive partner will not do so. The study has not said how many unsuspecting men got HIV from wives the study knew were infected.

None of the studies insisted that men who acquired HIV bring their wives for couple counseling. This ethical lapse – leaving wives with unknown risks – undermined the objective of the research, which was to see how much circumcision reduced sexual transmission. Bringing in and testing wives after men got HIV would not only protect HIV-negative wives, but would also provide information about how many infections came through sex, and how much circumcision reduced HIV from sex.

Table 2: Ethical short-comings in the three trials

Ethical issue South Africa, 2002-05 Kenya, 2002-06 Uganda, 2003-06
Did the study enroll people who refused to hear their HIV status? Yes No No
Did the study follow men not aware their wives had tested HIV-positive? No No Yes
Did the study insist that men who got HIV during the trial bring their wives for couple counseling? No No No

Mass circumcision based on assumption, not evidence: Campaigns for mass circumcision in Africa began in 2007, shortly after three studies – in Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda – concluded that circumcision cut men’s risk to get HIV by 51% to 60% by reducing men’s risk to get HIV from sexual partners.

Those conclusions are based on assumption, not evidence. According to what men reported about sexual behavior in two trials, only a minority of their infections came from sex. It is, of course, possible that men lied about their sexual behavior. But with that argument, realize what has happened: The $1.5 billion enterprise to circumcise 20 million men in Africa is no longer based on evidence. It’s based on assuming away evidence. It’s based on a prior belief – inconsistent with evidence from these trials – that almost all HIV infections in African adults come from sex.

How did the men get HIV, and how did circumcision affect sexual and non-sexual risks? We don’t know what happened in these studies. This is due at least in part to failure on the part of the study teams to report all collected data. None of the study teams has even said what data they collected. But the scientific errors started earlier. None of the studies collected all relevant information required to measure and to explain the impact of circumcision on men’s risk to get HIV – asking comprehensively about blood and sexual risks, and tracing and testing all long-term and short-term sexual partners.

Long past time to listen, believe, and investigate


There would be no HIV epidemic if doctors and nurses in Central and West Africa had not reused syringes and needles during 1900-1960. We’d worry about other things. And health aid programs would be begging for money for other things. But no one would have heard of HIV.

The charge – accusation – that colonial health care programs started the HIV/AIDS epidemics does not come from a wacko conspiracy theorist. Jacques Pepin, an accepted mainstream scientist, elaborates the charge in his new book, The Origins of AIDS. Peter Piot, the chairman of the AIDS establishment – the long-term former head of UNAIDS – seconds the charge: “As far as the origins of AIDS are concerned…it will be difficult to come up with a better explanation than Pepin’s. The role of medical injections in the initial spread of HIV in Africa is quite plausible.”

Pepin’s story of AIDS origins begins with hunters and butchers who sometimes get blood from chimpanzees into cuts. On rare occasions, chimpanzee blood infects a hunter or butcher with simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), at which point we call it HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). But it’s what happens next that’s important. Pepin argues – with a lot of evidence – that sexual transmission of HIV from a cut hunter or butcher to spouses and others was too inefficient – too slow – to sustain a chain of infection among humans. Without unsafe injections to spread HIV, the cut hunter or butcher would have died without spreading the infection. And there would be no epidemic.

But after making sense of the beginning of the epidemic, Pepin, Piot, and the rest of the AIDS establishment tell another and conflicting story. They want us to believe that although sexual transmission was too inefficient to start the epidemic, it later became so efficient that it accounts for almost all HIV infections in African adults. That makes about as much sense as saying pigs can’t take off and fly, but if you throw them into the air, then they can fly.

Mainstream AIDS experts have been persistent for almost 30 years in their claim that almost all HIV in African adults comes from sex. Let’s be clear what this claim means and where it comes from.

The claim is an accusation. Most couples with HIV in Africa are discordant – one is HIV-positive, and the other is HIV-negative. The claim that almost all HIV comes from sex accuses millions of men and women in discordant couples of having sex outside marriage. In discordant couples, women are the HIV-positive partner as often as men. Because women are generally the first partner tested (during antenatal care), the accusation that almost all HIV comes from sex targets especially women. The consequences can be harsh: A recent news story tells of a woman in Kenya who tested HIV-positive during antenatal care, and then brought her husband to test. When he tested HIV-negative, he accused her of being pregnant by another man and threw her out of the house.

Where does the claim (accusation) come from? It doesn’t come from evidence. After 30 years of research, the AIDS mainstream is still unable to point to anything different about sex in Africa that could explain how HIV infects so many people. Studies repeatedly show that sexual behavior in Africa is similar to, if not more conservative than, sexual behavior in Europe or the US. It doesn’t come from models: Models shows that sexual behavior in Africa combined with known rates of sexual transmission could not create Africa’s HIV epidemics.

On the other hand, study after study in Africa finds HIV-positive men and women who report no possible sexual exposures to HIV – such as virgins, and people with an HIV-negative spouse and no other lifetime sex partner. What do AIDS experts do with this evidence? Studies characteristically conclude that those who report no sexual risks got HIV from sex – and then lied about it. No matter what studies find and Africans say, the accusation remains: If you are African, you got HIV from sex.

The accusation that almost all HIV infections in African adults comes from sex not only blames HIV-positive adults for unwise sexual behavior but accuses and stigmatizes Africans in general for unusual sexual behavior and lack of human feelings. It’s a riff on historic characterizations of Africans as sub-human, close to animals, and backward.

Euphemistically, we could call the accusation an hypothesis, or in layman’s terms, a guess. But considering the lack of supporting evidence as well as persistent contradictory evidence, it hardly qualifies as a legitimate hypothesis waiting for tests and proof. It’s a dangerous wolf that masquerades in sheep’s clothing as a respectable hypothesis.

Which brings us to the question: Who gains? Health aid managers, health care providers, and ministries of health across Africa gain by blaming HIV-positive Africans for unwise sexual behavior. The alternative is to accept some of the blame for Africa’s ongoing epidemics. Does unsafe health care spread HIV in Africa today as in colonial times? A lot of evidence says so. To see if it’s so, and to find and stop dangerous health care procedures, ministries of health need to investigate unexpected infections. When a woman is HIV-positive with no sexual risks, it’s unlikely she is the only woman who’s been infected by the responsible clinic. How many were infected – tens, hundreds? Without looking – testing other women who visited the same clinic – we won’t know, and we won’t find the risk and stop the ongoing clinic-based HIV outbreak.

Health care professionals have a common conflict of interest that discourages them from talking about ongoing HIV transmission through health care. This common conflict of interest creates what could be called a natural conspiracy of silence about bloodborne risks for HIV. If any health care professional wants to challenge that assessment, here’s how – Call publicly for investigations of unexpected HIV infections. Show that you, at least, are not part of a conspiracy of silence about HIV transmission through health care in Africa.

Is misogyny misleading the response to Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemics?


Everyone has prejudices. Trying to overcome them can be like playing the arcade game whack-a-mole. See it, whack it. It pops up again, whack it again. The AIDS epidemic energizes a lot of prejudices. Unfortunately, the international AIDS industry – organizations and individuals getting money to do something about AIDS, including aid agencies, researchers, and others – has not been alert to see and reject common prejudices.

For example, even though careful surveys show that heterosexual behavior in Africa is similar to behavior in the US and Europe, most AIDS experts say that sexual behavior explains Africa’s terrible epidemics. Because the AIDS industry has not yet whacked racial stereotypes of sexual behavior, it has not yet been compelled to look for something other than sex that is different in Africa, and that could help to explain how HIV can infect 5%-26% of adults (50-260 out of 1,000 adults) in 15 countries in Africa compared to only 0.3% of adults (3 in 1,000) outside Africa.

But it’s not only racism that misdirects the AIDS industry’s response to Africa’s epidemics. Another prejudice – misogyny – seems to do so as well. Features of two prominent health aid programs in Africa – circumcising men, and extending birth control to women – suggest that misogyny is a hidden influence.

Circumcision: During 2005-07, studies in Africa reported that circumcising HIV-negative men reduced their risk to get HIV by 53% (median result from three studies), but that circumcising HIV-positive men increased transmission to their wives by 49% (result from one study). Based on these studies, donors initiated crash programs to circumcise millions of African men. Critics point out that circumcised men will still have to use condoms to be safe (not just safer). But since we’re focusing on women, let’s leave aside arguments that mass circumcision is not a good way to protect men.

Let’s focus instead on what was done with the evidence that circumcising HIV-positive men increased their partners’ risk to get HIV by 49%. Notably, in the study that reported that statistic, wives of circumcised men were at especially high risk if they resumed sex before their husbands’ circumcision wound healed – 5 (28%) of 18 who did so got HIV in the 6 months after their husbands were circumcised.

Programs offering subsidized circumcisions could protect wives by requiring that men asking to be circumcised be tested for HIV, and if found to be infected bring their wives for couple counseling before proceeding with the circumcision. Instead, the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS (UNAIDS) recommends: “The offer of male circumcision should neither depend on a person undergoing an HIV test, nor on a person being…HIV-negative” (quote from page 7 of this link). As mass circumcision programs got underway, as many as 1/3rd of men resumed sex before wound healing. Lack of care to protect women suggests misogyny – or is it just careless incompetence that happens to hurt women?

Hormone injections for birth control: During the last several decades, many studies in Africa and Asia found that women taking hormone (progesterone) injections for birth control were more likely to get HIV compared to women using other birth control methods. A similar risk is found with monkeys: As early as 1996, scientists studying SIV (simian HIV) in monkeys found that progesterone implants multiplied by 8 times their risk to get SIV. Progesterone thinned the monkey’s vaginal wall and enhanced virus replication. Another HIV risk with hormone injections is that careless providers might reuse unsterilized syringes and needles, transmitting HIV from one woman to another.

Despite the evidence, WHO continues to say hormone injections are safe for all women, and donors continue to push hormone injections for birth control – especially in Africa. Outside Africa, 3% of women (partnered women aged 15-49 years) use hormone injections. In contrast, in Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland, the percentage of women using hormone injections increased from 6%-20% in 1996 to 17%-29% in 2009. In these same countries, 6%-26% of adults are HIV-positive.

Compare what the AIDS industry does to protect men vs. women: In 2011,  a study among discordant couples (in which only one partner is HIV-positive) in Africa reported that women taking hormone injections for birth control were more than twice as likely to acquire HIV from their husbands compared to women using non-hormone methods. From this data, helping women shift from hormone injections to safer methods would cut their risk for HIV by 54% — as much as circumcision seemed to protect men in several recent studies. How did donors respond? Donors budget hundreds of millions of dollars to circumcise African men, but no donor has committed even one dollar to shift women from hormone injections to safer birth control methods. As of late 2011, the aid-for-family-planning industry, including notably USAID, continues to push hormone injections in Africa.

Other signs of misogyny: Outside Africa, HIV infects mostly men. Where that’s the case, researchers have identified all important risks – most infections come from anal sex among men or from sharing syringes and needles to inject illegal drugs. Knowing their risks helps men to avoid infection and thereby limits the extent of HIV epidemics. Outside Africa, only 0.3% of adults are infected.

In Africa, HIV infects more women than men. In Swaziland, for example, HIV infects 31% of women vs. 20% of men. In the 28 years after AIDS was recognized in Africa in 1983, researchers have failed to do the simple research required to identify important risks for women – that is, to trace the source of their infections.

We know some women get HIV from their husbands. But we also know that in most African countries married women with HIV are more likely to have HIV-negative than HIV-positive husbands. We know that many self-reported virgin women are HIV-positive. We know that reuse of unsterilized medical instruments is common in Africa. So we know some things. But we don’t know enough. Failure to identify women’s risks may well be the key to failure to control Africa’s epidemics.

Other evidence of misogyny comes from the AIDS industry’s frequent  claims that prostitutes drive Africa’s epidemics. Throughout history, societies have blamed promiscuous women — especially prostitutes — for spreading sexually transmitted disease. Some studies in Africa have found a lot of prostitutes with HIV — but how did they get it? Notably, in most countries outside Africa, HIV is rare in prostitutes who do not inject illegal drugs. Few prostitutes in Africa inject illegal drugs, but they get other injections, such as antibiotics to treat sexually transmitted disease. Nevertheless, building on a long tradition, the AIDS industry finds it easy to blame prostitutes’ HIV infections on sex, rather than to investigate to see how much unsafe health care not only infects prostitutes, but also spreads HIV from prostitutes to others.

Finally, consider the different attention paid to sterilization of medical instruments in the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), which began in 1974 and which treats mostly children, compared to what has been done in safe motherhood and family planning programs for women. During the 1980s and later, EPI’s donors arranged dozens of surveys of injection practices in immunization programs. These surveys found lots of unsafe injections. In 1999 a WHO committee acknowledged that 30% of vaccination injections were unsafe. To address the problem, EPI’s donors belatedly shifted vaccination injections to auto-disable syringes, which break after one use.

Unlike EPI, programs promoting health care for women have not arranged surveys to see if health care is safe – e.g., how often are gloves, specula, and syringes reused without sterilization? Even so, there is a lot of evidence that women’s health care in many hospitals and clinics in Africa is not only unreliably sterile but has also infected women with HIV. For example, a 2005 national survey in Ethiopia found that 9.9% of women who gave birth in the last 3 years with delivery care from a health professional were HIV-positive vs. only 1.2% of women who gave birth but did not get such care. We don’t know where all those infections came from. Not knowing shows that no one has cared enough about women to do the simple studies to find the risks – tracing infections to their source – so that women can be warned and thereby protected. Donors’ head-in-the-sand approach to women’s exposures to unsterile instruments in health care mocks the “safe motherhood” slogan.

More than money is required to stop Africa’s AIDS epidemic – it also needs clear thinking.  That is hard to do when common prejudices are not recognized and whacked. If we see and whack racial stereotypes of African sexual behavior, we’re more open to evidence pointing to other explanations. If we’re alert to whack misogyny, we’re forced to take a good look at all the ways the AIDS industry harms and stigmatizes African women. Clear thinking can help to translate good intentions into protecting and healing actions.

PrePex in Rwanda: Male Circumcision Associated with Higher HIV Transmission and Higher Profits


Rwanda, which has a shockingly low number of doctors and other health personnel per patient, is claiming that they can circumcise two million men in the next one and a half years. Even Kenya, which makes exalted claims, has only managed 250,000 or so in a longer period of time. Apparently, the trick is to be unchoosy about who carries out the operation. However, if large sums of money are available, why not train more personnel? The effect would be far more significant and sustainable and would benefit health in general, not just HIV alone.

Well, there are plenty of unemployed people in Rwanda, but this doesn’t sound like the best way to spend the 100 million dollars or so, which is about the lowest amount such a program could cost. And that’s just if everything goes well. If Rwanda can barely cope with the most minor, non-invasive medical procedures, why rush into circumcising most of the adult male population when there’s no guarantee it will be of benefit? In fact, it may even do a lot of harm.

Not many Rwandan men are circumcised, but in the latest figures available for HIV prevalence among circumcised men (2005, later figures are yet to be released), the operation would appear to increase transmission. This is nothing unusual; in many countries HIV prevalence is higher among circumcised men; prevalence for circumcised Rwandan men is 3.8%, compared to 2.1% for uncircumcised men. So what evidence is the country using to persuade men to undergo this operation when they will still have to use condoms, which could protect them from HIV, unplanned pregnancy and a whole host of sexually transmitted infections in one go?

Indeed, national HIV prevalence in Rwanda is relatively low, at 3%. But female prevalence is 3.6%, whereas male prevalence is only 2.3%. As in all medium and high prevalence countries, rates are far higher among women, especially urban dwelling women, wealthy women and women with the highest levels of education. And it is not even clear if transmission from men to women is reduced by male circumcision. There is evidence that transmission from men to women may increase as a result of a mass circumcision program.

It is often claimed that HIV prevalence among Muslim populations is lower and it is even stated or implied that this is because Muslim men tend to be circumcised. In Rwanda, HIV prevalence is indeed lower among Muslim men than any other religious group. But Muslims as a whole have by far the highest HIV prevalence because female rates stand at 11.4%, compared to less than 4% for every other religious group. (It could be argued that polygamy, said to be common among Muslims, results in higher HIV rates; but rates are often lower where polygamy is common; besides, many non-Muslim groups practice polygamy, even if they identify themselves as Christian.)

Apparently the PrePex device will be used to carry out the circumcisions, a simple piece of plastic with an elastic band. This device has been widely advertised, especially through infomercials, and is backed by the Gates Foundation amongst others. One of the infomercials was run by the BBC; there’s a link to the clip in a blog post I wrote some months ago. But with HIV prevalence so low, 97% of the adult population are uninfected, how valuable could this operation really be (aside from the clear value to the manufacturers of PrePex and other commercial interests)?