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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.

One response to “Long past time to listen, believe, and investigate

  1. Selma Khamassi February 1, 2012 at 9:55 am

    Excellent ! Thank you David !

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