Health care professionals in African ministries of health, the World Health Organization (WHO), donor organizations, and foreign universities participating in HIV-related research in Africa know the proper response to unexpected HIV infections (eg, in children with HIV-negative mothers, in spouses with one lifetime HIV-negative sex partner). That response is to find the source of the infection by tracing and testing others who attended suspected hospitals and clinics, and thereby to identify and correct unsafe practices to protect other patients. There have been no such investigations of unexpected HIV infections in any country in sub-Saharan Africa.
Health care professionals are ethically obligated to give patients accurate information about risks. The World Medical Association’s Declaration of Lisbon on the Rights of the Patient states: “A mentally competent adult patient has the right to give or withhold consent to any diagnostic procedure or therapy. The patient has the right to the information necessary to make his/her decisions…” and “Every person has the right to health education that will assist him/her in making informed choices about personal health and about the available health services.”
Medical researchers trying to find what is different about HIV transmission in Africa that could explain the world’s worst HIV epidemics know that the best way to do so is to trace and test sex and blood contacts when someone shows up with a new or unexplained infection. Unfortunately, medical researchers (who are also health care professionals) have been reticent to find their colleagues’ contribution to Africa’s HIV epidemics. For example, 44 studies that followed more than 120,000 adults in Africa and observed more than 4,000 new HIV infections linked only 186 (4.6%) of those infections to HIV-positive sex partners, all of which were spouses the study had been following all along. No study traced and tested any sex partner (spouse or other) not already included and followed in the study. No study traced blood contacts, and few studies reported any information about blood risks. Despite lack of evidence (avoided and ignored evidence) all studies assumed infections came from sex. (These 44 studies were randomized controlled trials of interventions to prevent HIV in African adults.)
For 30 years, medical professionals have accused HIV-positive Africans of careless or immoral sexual behavior. But if one looks for what is different in Africa vs. the US and Europe, what jumps out is not sexual misbehavior but rather unethical, immoral, and incompetent behavior by health care professionals: not investigating unexpected HIV infections; not warning the public about unsafe health care; and mismanaging research so as not to find risks for HIV.
Ten years ago, on 14 March 2003, WHO held a one-day meeting to discuss the role of unsafe medical injections in Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemics. WHO staff arranged the meeting after a series of articles in the International Journal of STD & AIDS during 2002-03 called attention to decades of overlooked evidence that unsafe health care infected Africans with HIV. The 20 invited attendees included three co-authors of these articles (Brody, Gisselquist, and Potterat).
WHO staff managed the meeting as part of a continuing cover-up of hospitals’ and clinics’ contribution to Africa’s HIV epidemics. The meeting was closed to the public. A first press release, prepared by WHO staff in the days before the meeting and released before it ended, misleadingly claimed: “An expert group has reaffirmed that unsafe sexual practices are responsible for the vast majority of HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa…”
Later that year, WHO’s meeting summary acknowledged that “No consensus emerged from the conference” on whether “sexual transmission was responsible for the large majority of HIV infections.” The summary also noted “universal agreement…that better data on the possible role of unsafe injections, and other health care practices, in HIV transmission are needed to more definitively determine their role in HIV transmission in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Unfortunately, the events of the last 10 years show a continuing unwillingness on the part of too many health care professionals to do what is needed to find and stop HIV transmission through unsafe health care in Africa.