AIDS experts still haven’t figured out what is different about Africa that can explain why HIV epidemics there are so much worse than elsewhere. The continuing failure to find what is different exposes persistent (intentional or natural) incompetence on the part of respected researchers.
Specifically, scores of studies that have tested, followed, and retested hundreds of thousands of HIV-negative Africans to find when and how they get HIV have failed to trace the source of observed new infections. Without tracing the source, there is no way to say infections came from sex – but “HIV from sex” is nevertheless the conclusion (and racist slur) from decades of incompetent, incomplete research. When such studies find people with new HIV infections who report no possible sexual exposure to HIV, researchers characteristically reject the evidence: “hmmmm, an African with HIV…must have lied about sexual behavior….”
With that “scientific” method, the US National Institutes of Health and UK’s Medical Research Council could save money by paying researchers sitting in offices in Baltimore, US, or Oxford, UK, to make up data to fit pre-determined conclusions. That would be more efficient than paying them to go to Africa, collect data, and then reject what doesn’t fit desired conclusions.
While funders have avoided funding good science to explain Africa’s HIV epidemics – for 30 years and counting – they have been all too happy to fund junk science that will get the desired results. One popular junk-science strategy to get desired results has been to model Africa’s HIV epidemic with unreliable parameters and weak, selected, or made-up data.
The latest paper by Pepin and colleagues falls into that category of junk science – presenting a model with unreliable parameters and data, and using results from the model to claim that unsafe medical injections accounted for less than 1% of new HIV infections in Africa in 2010 (8,000-16,000 from injections vs. 1.9 million total new infections).
Several obvious problems with the estimate are as follows:
1. Pepin’s assumed rate of HIV transmission through a contaminated syringe or needle – 1 in 150-300 injections – is far too low to allow observed HIV outbreaks through health care in Russia, Romania, Libya, and elsewhere. If those outbreaks occurred – they did! – then Pepin’s proposed rate of HIV transmission through injections is misleadingly low. For example, in Russia in 1988-89 hospital procedures passed from HIV from 1 child to more than 260 children in 15 months. Most transmissions in this outbreak came from children who had been infected less than 6 weeks earlier – enough time for infected children to get dozens but not 150-300 skin-piercing procedures followed by reuse of unsterilized instruments.
2. Pepin’s same model estimates 4,300-8,500 new hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections in Africa from unsafe injections in 2010, less than 1% of estimated new HCV infections (cf: an estimated 18 million Africans were living with HCV in 2005, which corresponds to approximately 1 million new infections per year). Because virtually all new HCV infections come from blood, not sex, it’s likely that unsafe injections account for a lot more than 1% of new HCV infections – and by extension, more than 1% of new HIV infections as well. Furthermore, other skin-piercing procedures aside from injections likely account for a lot of new HCV infections – and by extension a lot of new HIV infections as well.
3. Pepin’s estimates distract from facts that need answers. Why do 16%-31% of HIV-positive children in Mozambique, Swaziland, and Uganda, have HIV-negative mothers (among children with tested mothers)? Why do so many mutually monogamous couples find that one or both partners are HIV-positive?
In his conclusion, Pepin commendably recognizes “other modes of iatrogenic transmission” including: “use of multi-dose medication vials, phlebotomies with re-used needles, dental care with improper sterilisation of instruments, unscreened transfusions, ritual scarifications and circumcisions performed by traditional practitioners… Better measurement of such exposures and of their impact on viral dynamics is an essential first step…”
Even so, Pepin does not hit the nail on the head. What is required to measure the “impact [of such procedures] on viral dynamics” is to trace HIV infections to their source. When infections are traced a hospital, dental clinic, tattooist, etc, then continue with outbreak investigations to determine the extent of the damage from unsafe health care or other skin-piercing procedure.
1. Gisselquist. Randomized controlled trials for HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa: Untraced infections, unasked questions, and unreported data. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1940999 (accessed 14 June 2014).
2. Pepin et al. Evolution of the global burden of viral infections from unsafe medical injections, 2000-2010. PLOS one 2014; 9: 1-8. Available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0099677 (accessed 14 June 2014).
3. Annex table 9 in: UNAIDS. Global HIV/AIDS Response: Epidemic update and health sector progress towards Universal Access, progress report 2011. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2011/9789241502986_eng.pdf?ua=1 (accessed 15 June 2014).
4. See: http://dontgetstuck.org/russia-cases-and-investigations/
5. Hanafiah et al. Global epidemiology of hepatitis C virus infection. Hepatitis 2013. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hep.26141/pdf (accessed 14 June 2014).
6. See pages for Mozambique, Swaziland, and Uganda at: http://dontgetstuck.org/cases-unexpected-hiv-infections/; see also: https://dontgetstuck.wordpress.com/cases-unexpected-hiv-infections/).
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