Bloodborne HIV: Don't Get Stuck!

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WHO Acknowledges HIV Risk in Ugandan Hospitals?

I know infection control professionals are not common in African countries but I hadn’t realized that up till recently there were none at all in Uganda. I wonder how many there are in countries that have received only a fraction of the funding Uganda has received, especially HIV funding. A WHO article about their ‘African Partnerships for Patient Safety’ initiative announces that one hospital, seven hours drive from the capital city, now “has its own infection control professional, the first in the country”. The article proudly states that “just two years ago, patient safety was an obscure concept that was almost impossible for hospital staff to apply when faced with practical realities”.

Could this be the same WHO that tells us that the vast majority of HIV infections in Uganda are a result of unsafe sex? True, the fact that patient safety was an ‘obscure concept’ does not mean that HIV transmission through unsafe healthcare is common. Rather, it means that we, WHO included, have no idea whether such transmission is common or not. We don’t know what proportion of HIV transmission is a result of unsafe healthcare and, therefore, what proportion is a result of the WHO’s beloved sexual transmission. Not that this stops WHO, UNAIDS and others from droning on about African sexual practices, ‘dry sex’, concurrency, circumcision, widow inheritance, long distance truckers, commercial sex workers and the rest, as if that’s all there is to HIV epidemics where many of the people infected face little or no obvious sexual risk.

The most striking thing about the official Modes of Transmission Survey for Uganda is that the largest group contributing to new infections consists of people in stable heterosexual couples. In many of those couples the index partner, the one infected first, is female (fewer males are infected but there is equally little evidence that they were all infected through unsafe sex). As the first to be infected, these women could not have been infected by their partners. So how were they infected? According to UNAIDS and WHO thinking, they must have had sex with someone other than their partner. The UN’s IRIN news service refers to them as ‘cheaters’, which is a reflection of IRIN’s typical style and level of sensitivity. But can the Modes of Transmission Survey rule out non-sexual transmission of HIV through unsafe healthcare, traditional and cosmetic practices in this group of people who face such low sexual risk? The simple answer is ‘no’. For UNAIDS, WHO and other institutions, it is simply taken for granted that the bulk of transmission is through unsafe sex. Questions about non-sexual risks are rarely raised and peremptorily dismissed if mentioned.

Survey after survey shows that those who engage in unsafe sex are no more likely to be infected that those who don’t; often, those who don’t engage in unsafe sex are more likely to be infected. High HIV prevalence does not tend to cluster in isolated areas, except where there have been major health programs. It does tend to cluster among wealthier, better educated, more mobile, employed people who are close to major transport routes and close to or in major cities; coincidentally, they also tend to be much closer to health facilities. Is one infection control expert in an isolated hospital in Uganda going to make much difference to transmission rates? Possibly in that hospital. But it is the initial assumption made by WHO, UNAIDS, etc, that needs to change: knowing someone’s HIV status tells you nothing about their sexual behavior and knowing about their sexual behavior is not a good predictor of their HIV status.

That may sound counter-intuitive if your ‘intuition’ is based on reading mainstream press, and even much of the more specialized scientific literature. HIV in African countries is almost invariably associated with sexual behavior. In Western countries this is not the case. HIV in wealthier countries tends to be attributed to intravenous drug use and male to male sex. Even in Asian countries, people are sometimes given a little benefit of doubt; they may have been infected through unsafe healthcare. But in African countries with the worst epidemics, there has never been an investigation into healthcare practices; there has never been an investigation into why so many women in Uganda (for example) are infected when their husbands are not, and where these women did not face any other obvious risks; there has never been an investigation into why so many babies are infected when their mothers are not; in fact, what proportion of babies are infected whose mothers are not? We don’t know the answer to these questions we appear not to even want to ask.

Does the ‘African Partnerships for Patient Safety‘ indicate an admission that patient safety could be a factor in some of the world’s worst HIV epidemics, after thirty years of insisting that HIV is all about sex and wasting billions of dollars accordingly, or is it mere lip service? I won’t be holding my breath.

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