How are we to make sense of a HIV epidemic such as the one in Uganda? We are told that it is mostly a result of ‘unsafe’ sex. But data about sexual behavior in Uganda is unremarkable; most people don’t engage in high levels of unsafe sex, and types of sexual behavior considered unsafe appear not to be so unsafe after all.
In 2007, it was estimated that there were almost one million people living with HIV, 135,000 newly infected with HIV in that year, and 77,000 deaths from Aids. The Demographic and Health Survey for Uganda in 2011 concluded that “Differences in HIV infection according to higher risk sexual activity are minor”.
In fact, the vast majority of the 18,000 people surveyed did not engage in sexual behavior considered to be risky. Most people had a maximum of one partner in the last 12 months, most who had more than one partner did not have concurrent (overlapping) partnerships, most did not report large numbers of lifetime partners, most didn’t pay for sex and most didn’t engage in ‘higher risk’ sex in the past 12 months.
So it’s hard to believe that the table appearing on page 15 of the Modes of Transmission Survey (MoT) for Uganda, for 2009, can be anything but fiction. It claims that almost 90% of HIV incidence is a result of multiple partnerships, partners of multiple partnerships and people engaged in mutually monogamous heterosexual relationships.
Even incidence attributed to sex workers doesn’t reach 1%, nor does that attributed to men who have sex with men, plus their female partners. Injecting drug use doesn’t play a big part in most of the epidemics in sub-Saharan Africa either.
The DHS figures for Uganda clearly do not support the MoT figures. They do not support the contention that high HIV prevalence indicates high rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual activity; HIV prevalence is high in Uganda, but sexual activity is not exceptional, nor is it closely associated with HIV transmission.
DHS continues: “HIV prevalence by the number of sexual partners in the 12 months before the survey does not show the expected patterns”. It is noted that “HIV prevalence shows the expected relationship with the number of lifetime sexual partners” but the author doesn’t mention that the numbers of people involved is very small. So they conclude that “it is important to remember that responses about sexual risk behaviours may be subject to reporting bias”.
Uganda was one of the first countries to expose itself to the scrutiny of the rapidly developing HIV industry, from the 1980s. As a result, a lot more studies took place there, a lot more papers were published about Uganda and tens of millions more dollars were spent there than in any other African country, even countries that later turned out to have far worse epidemics.
It takes more than a bit of fluffing to get from the Demographic and Health Survey’s flaccid data on sexual behavior to the conclusion that almost 90% of HIV transmission is a result of unsafe heterosexual sex. But if the industry doesn’t come clean about where the bulk of new infections are coming from, resources targeted at those thought to or claimed to engage in ‘unsafe’ sex will continue to be wasted.