The satirical site The Onion ran the headline ‘Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away‘ at the end of July. I’m not citing this article because I think it is funny, but because it raises a shocking point very succinctly, one that must have passed through the minds of many over the past few months.
If such an outbreak were to become established in a wealthy country, mainly inhabited by white people, would it still be raging 9 months later? And what efforts would be made to establish the source of the infections?
There is probably no wealthy country precedent to compare with the sort of epidemics that are frequently found in poor countries, often without even attracting the notice of the western world (or not for very long). But a recent article published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings outlines the kind of work that went into investigating the infection of 84 people with hepatitis C (HCV) and another 34 with bacterial infections in US hospitals over a 14 year period. In fact, the paper outlines a whole series of investigations, very impressive work, too.
Six healthcare personnel were identified as a result of these many, lengthy and thorough investigations. That’s an average of almost 20 patients infected for each worker. An estimated 30,000 patients were potentially exposed to blood-borne pathogens by these six people. Twenty three different hospitals were involved, in 10 different states. (Naturally, I don’t really know if the victims were all white people; the authors are far too polite to mention such detail.)
A 2009 article entitled ‘Injection drug use, unsafe medical injections, and HIV in Africa: a systematic review‘, by Savanna Reid, estimates that 20 million medical injections contaminated with blood from a patient with HIV are administered every year in Africa. Other research by Yves Hutin, entitled ‘Use of injections in healthcare settings worldwide, 2000: literature review and regional estimates‘, estimates that out of the 17 billion injections administered every year globally, 7 billion of them are unsafe.
So where are the HIV and hepatitis outbreak investigations carried out in African countries? They are not listed in PubMed, unless they are called something else, to throw investigators off the scent. Such an investigation was carried out in Pakistan in 2008, but as it confirmed the worst fears of those who believe that unsafe healthcare is a serious risk it appears to have attracted very little attention (and turned into what looks like a cover-up).
So what do we know about unsafe healthcare in African countries, in the absence of such investigations? We know that infants with HIV negative mothers were probably infected through unsafe healthcare in Mozambique, and some of the infants may have gone on to infect their mothers (though it hasn’t been seen fit to explain to these mothers how their infants may have been infected, nor even the likely source of their own infection).
We know that people who have received medical injections in Kenya and several other countries are several times more likely to be HIV positive than those who have not. We know that women who have sex only with other women in Namibia and other southern African countries have been infected and that their non-sexual risks have not been investigated. We know that many people found to be infected with HIV in most African countries have said they have not had sex, or that they have not had sex with a HIV positive person, or that they have only engaged in safe sex [earlier version corrected].
In fact, there are numerous instances of HIV outbreaks in African countries, and probably other diseases, which have very likely been caused by unsafe healthcare, reused syringes and other equipment, failure to comply with infection procedures, etc. But none of them have been investigated. Instead, there are vast quantities of data shoved into mathematical ‘models’, showing that HIV is almost always transmitted through heterosexual behavior in African countries (this being just one example).
Completely untrue, but in accordance with the ‘promiscuous African’ myth, which has a long history in the medical (and eugenics) literature. The authors of such papers systematically ignore empirical data and fail to investigate outbreaks, they assume that African people themselves are either seriously mistaken about their sexual history or just tell lies, and they go unchallenged by their fellow academics and even peer reviewers, who have the luxury of remaining anonymous, but seemingly prefer to toe the party line.
No doubt these mathematical models are great examples of academic prowess and rigor, that stand up to the highest levels of scrutiny. But they are no substitute for the kind of investigations that have been carried out into what is thought to be a mere tip of the iceberg in hospital transmitted hepatitis and bacterial infections in the US. However brilliant these models are in the field of epidemiology, they are the work of people who care nothing about their fellow human beings in African countries.
Why do these highly qualified academics care so little about poor black people and, apparently, so much about people more likely to be wealthy and white? Is it academic vanity, money, some kind of animalistic competitive instinct, or a combination of these? The challenge to all these clever academics, who can publish their work in the most prestigious journals and be cited in the cream of the western media, is to go to the same lengths investigating and stopping HIV (and ebola, HCV and other diseases) in African countries as they do in parts of the US before the epidemic spreads any further.