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UNAIDS Getting to Zero: Zero Lies, Zero Double Standards and Zero Institutional Racism

According to George Ochoa “An infection spread by unsafe injection practices can happen anywhere” and finds that “Since 2001…at least 48 outbreaks caused by unsafe injection practices have occurred in the United States, with the majority (90%) in outpatient settings (10 in pain clinics and nine in oncology clinics). Twenty-one of the outbreaks involved hepatitis B or hepatitis C; 27 were bacterial. More than 150,000 patients required notification to recommend bloodborne pathogen testing following exposure to unsafe injections.”

But if UNAIDS is right, George Ochoa is wrong; HIV infections through unsafe injection hardly ever occur in high HIV prevalence countries, which are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. That must explain why, since the HIV epidemic began 30 years ago, no outbreak investigations have been carried out in sub-Saharan Africa.

UNAIDS’ ‘Kenya Aids Epidemic Update 2011’ briefly mentions re-use of injecting equipment during immunization programs (which account for a small percentage of all injections administered). They say “In a study of young men (ages 18–24) in Kisumu, men who received a medical injection in the last six months were nearly three times more likely to be HIV-positive”.

However, the report also claims that a minuscule percentage of HIV infections were a result of any kind of unsafe healthcare and that “Sexual transmission accounts for an estimated 93% of new HIV infections in Kenya, with heterosexual intercourse representing 77% of incident infections. Adults in stable, seemingly low-risk heterosexual relationships make up the largest share of new HIV infections.”

Did they assess the non-sexual risks faced by those people in ‘seemingly low-risk’ relationships? The report says “Among adult participants in the 2003 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey who said they had “no risk” for HIV, nearly 1 in 20 (4.6%) were in reality HIV infected”. The implication is that all those people were infected sexually, but they just didn’t realize they were at risk. For the authors of the UNAIDS report, the people in question were either stupid, liars or stupid liars.

The report recognizes that if there is a large number of HIV positive people in the population, the risk for each sex act is higher. But they don’t acknowledge that the same circumstances also make the risk of infection from an unsafe injection or other skin piercing procedure far higher. HIV prevalence is about 10 times higher in Kenya than it is in the US. But there have been no reported outbreaks of HIV or any other disease as a result of unsafe healthcare in Kenya or any other sub-Saharan African country.

Another study, by WHO, says that “around half the injections used across the world are unsafe for administration, with a worse ratio in developing countries”. So is it possible that George Ochoa is right in stating that “An infection spread by unsafe injection practices can happen anywhere”, and UNAIDS wrong? Well, shocking as it may seem to those who look to UNAIDS as an institution that specializes in HIV, what they say to Africans is different from what they say to UN employees.

Here’s what they have to say to UN employees: “Use of improperly sterilized syringes and other medical equipment in health-care settings can also result in HIV transmission. We in the UN system are unlikely to become infected this way since the UN-system medical services take all the necessary precautions and use only new or sterilized equipment. Extra precautions should be taken, however, when on travel away from UN approved medical facilities, as the UN cannot ensure the safety of blood supplies or injection equipment obtained elsewhere. It is always a good idea to avoid direct exposure to another person’s blood — to avoid not only HIV but also hepatitis and other bloodborne infections.

They also say: “In several regions, unsafe blood collection and transfusion practices and the use of contaminated syringes account for a notable share of new infections. Because 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.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I tend to believe the warning they give to UN employees, but that suggests they are lying about the risk that Africans face from unsafe healthcare. Why would this august institution lie about a very serious risk of HIV infection in the highest HIV prevalence countries in the world? Well, I can’t answer that question. If it’s vital to warn UN employees, it should be vital to warn those who don’t actually have much choice about which health facilities to use, UN approved or otherwise.

UNAIDS’ current touchy-feely campaign is called ‘Getting to Zero: zero new infections, zero discrimination, zero Aids related deaths’. How about ‘zero lies, zero double standards and zero institutional racism’ as an alternative set of objectives?

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