Bloodborne HIV: Don't Get Stuck!

Protect yourself from bloodborne HIV during healthcare and cosmetic services

Addressing a running sore: HIV in South Africa


South Africa, where doctors achieved the first human heart transplant and one of the wealthiest countries in Africa, has a terrible HIV epidemic. In 2015, an estimated 30.8% of pregnant women were HIV-positive at their first antenatal visit, with more pregnant women infected in parts of the country: for example, 44.5% in KwaZulu-Natal province and 48.4% in Zululand district of that province.[1] Even more adults were infected in some age cohorts and regions: for example, in a 2014 survey of a study population in uMungundlovu district, KwaZulu-Natal, more than 66% of women aged 30-39 years were HIV-positive as were 59.6% of men aged 40-44 years.[2] Although South Africa has only 0.75% of the world’s population, a 2017 national survey estimated 7.9 million South Africans infected,[3] more than a fifth of the world’s total HIV infections.[4]

The South African government is doing a lot of what is required to respond to this epidemic with one glaring exception: the government has not investigated any unexpected and unexplained infections (i.e., not from sex, mother-to-child, or injection drug use) to find and stop blood-borne HIV transmission during health care and cosmetic services.

Doing things right: 90-90-90

In 2014, UNAIDS launched the 90-90-90 initiative, setting targets for testing and treatment to be achieved by 2020: 90% of people with HIV know they are infected, 90% who know are on antiretroviral therapy (ART), and 90% on ART have suppressed viral loads.[5]

Government of South Africa has made encouraging progress towards 90-90-90 targets. In a 2017 national survey, 84.9% of HIV-positive adults aged 15-64 years knew they were infected, 70.6% of those who knew were on ART, and 89.5% of people taking ART were virally suppressed. Putting these numbers together, 54% of HIV-positive adults were virally suppressed (54% = 84.9% x 70.6% x 89.5%).[6] The 90-90-90 targets are intended not only to reduce AIDS sickness and deaths but also to reduce HIV transmission. People with suppressed viral loads are not likely to transmit sexually because they have so little virus in semen or vaginal fluids.

Government of South Africa has also done well with prevention of mother-to-child transmission. As of 2017, more than 95% of pregnant women were tested for HIV and those found infected were given ART both to protect them and to prevent HIV transmission to their babies.[4] In 2016-17, less than 1% of HIV-positive mothers transmitted HIV to their babies before and during birth.[7]

Even before the 90-90-90 initiative, government of South Africa in 2010 began an HIV testing campaign, testing 13.3 million people over 18 months, finding 2 million with HIV, and putting 400,000 on treatment.[8] Also in 2010, government told providers to offer an HIV test to anyone seeking health care at a public facility.[9] To make testing easier, government in 2016 approved sale of self-testing kits through private pharmacies and other outlets.[10] These policies and programs support efforts to reach the testing target for 2020 – that 90% of people who are infected know it. More testing contributes to prevention by making it easier for people to know if their (potential) sex partner is HIV-positive, so they know to use condoms or otherwise protect themselves.

Doing things wrong: not investigating unexpected infections

With more testing, treatment, and other factors, the annual number of new HIV infections in South Africa fell 40% from 386,000 in 2010 to 231,000 in 2017.[3] Even so, South Africa’s HIV/AIDS disaster is reaching the next generation: in 2017 young women aged 15-24 years were getting HIV at the rate of 1.5% per year.[3]

The terrible scale of South Africa’s HIV epidemic is due in part to government not doing what it could to protect people. Over the years, public media and medical journals have recognized and reported unexpected HIV infections in South Africa. Nevertheless, as of early 2019, government has not investigated any unexpected infection by identifying suspected source facilities and then tracing and testing others treated at those facilities. For example, beginning in 1999, a group of doctors in Cape Town from time to time asked about and identified possible health care risks for more than 20 HIV-positive children with HIV-negative mothers.[11,12] But government did not subsequently trace and test others treated at suspected source facilities. Without tracing and testing to find others infected at the same facilities it is not possible to determine the extent of any outbreak or to find and fix the specific lapses in standard precautions responsible; and the public remains at risk.

Government of South Africa’s response to unexpected infections contrasts sharply with responses by governments outside sub-Saharan Africa. For example, in 1988 doctors in Elista, Russia (part of the USSR at the time), found and reported unexpected HIV infections in a hospitalized baby with an HIV-negative mother and a blood donor with no sexual risk. Government investigated, testing thousands, tracing transmission from one child directly and indirectly to 265 children in 13 hospitals, and ending the outbreak by August 1989.[13,14] From 1989 through 2014, nine other governments (Cambodia, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Mexico, Romania, and Uzbekistan) investigated unexpected infections to uncover nosocomial (through health care) HIV outbreaks with more than 100 to more than 55,000 infections [15-17]). Many other governments have investigated unexpected infections to find smaller outbreaks.[16]

A lot of evidence suggests HIV transmission through skin-piercing procedures in health care, and possibly also during cosmetic services, have been and remain common in South Africa. Following paragraphs summarize selected evidence from later to earlier reports.

Incidence in children aged 2-14 years: The fifth South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence, Behavior and Communication Survey, 2017, reported children aged 2-14 years acquired new HIV infections at the rate of 0.13% per year.[6]

Higher HIV prevalence in Black Africans than in other groups: The same 2017 national survey reported much higher HIV prevalence in Black Africans of all ages (16.6%) than in Whites (1.1%), Coloured (5.3%), or Indian/Asians (0.8%).[6] The survey gives no explanation for these differences in terms of sexual behavior. Male circumcision is not a factor: as of 2012, it was more common among Black African adults (52.4%) compared to Whites (23.3%), Coloured (26.4%), or Indian/Asians (33.5%).[18] There is, however, a big difference in where people get health care: in the second national HIV survey in 2005, 80% of Whites reported they usually get health care from private providers, while 80% of Black Africans reported they got most health care from public services.[19]

Unexplained infections in high school women: A 2011-2017 study in Mpumalanga province tested 2,533 high school women aged 13-20 years; 81 were HIV-positive, including 38 who reported never having vaginal or anal sex.[20] The study then followed and retested the women for 1-6 years during which 190 got HIV, including 44 who reported no lifetime sex.[21] At annual surveys during the first three years of follow-up an average of only 9% of women reported any sex without a condom in the previous three months[22]; and from what women reported about partners’ ages (less than 9% were aged over 24 years) less than 10% were HIV-positive.[22,23] Even if all women reporting unprotected sex in the previous three months had unprotected sex 104 times per year (or twice per week; an intended overestimate, considering most were in school), one could expect to see only 0.1% of women get HIV from sex each year, far less than observed incidence of 1.8% per year[22] (0.1% = 9% of women reporting unprotected sex in the previous three months x 104 sex acts per year x 10% of partners are HIV-positive x transmission efficiency of 1 per 1,000 coital acts; the next paragraph references this estimated transmission efficiency)

(This paper estimates transmission efficiencies of HIV through unprotected vaginal sex at 1 per 1,000 coital acts or 10% per year from an infected spouse based on the following references. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates transmission per unprotected coital act at 0.8 per 1,000 from men to women and 0.4 per 1,000 from women to men[24]. A widely cited estimate from a study in Uganda is 1.2 per 1,000 coital acts (with some condom use, which had no impact on estimated transmission efficiency).[25] Six studies in Africa followed discordant couples in which most partners were not aware of their infections or risks and/or did not use condoms; from these six studies both the mean and average rates of HIV incidence in initially HIV-negative partners were less than 10% per year.[26-31] Here and elsewhere I report rates of HIV incidence as percentages per year, a statistic more familiar for non-technical readers than the technical term, infections per 100 person-years.)

HIV-positive virgin men and women: In a 2014-15 survey among adults aged 15-49 years in uMgungundlovu district, KwaZulu-Natal, 11.2% of (self-reported) virgin women were HIV-positive as were 9.0% of virgin men.[2]

Higher incidence in young women than can be explained by sex: Repeated surveys of a study population in mKhanyakude district, KwaZulu-Natal, reported young women aged 15-24 years acquired new HIV infections at the rate of 5.9% per year (486 infections in 8,211 person-years) during 2011-15.[32] Such high incidence is difficult to reconcile with women’s limited sexual exposures to HIV, suggesting most infections come from risks other than sex. In the 2015 survey, 34% (847/2,467) of young women reported at least one coital act without condoms in the previous year,[32] and HIV prevalence was 10% among men who reported sex with a young woman in the past year.[33] Assuming women who reported unprotected sex in the past year averaged 104 unprotected coital acts per year (an intended over-estimate) and a transmission efficiency of 1 per 1,000 coital acts, sex explains incidence of only 0.4% per year, far less than the observed rate of 5.9% per year (0.4% = 34% of women with any unprotected sex in the past year x 104 coital acts per year x 10% of partners were HIV-positive x 0.001 transmissions per unprotected coital act[24,25]).

Cluster of 63 recent and linked infections: The African Health Research Institute found a cluster of 63 very similar HIV (similar sequences of amino acids) in blood collected during 2011-14 from 1,376 adults in a study population in uMkhanyakude district, KwaZulu-Natal. The Institute estimated HIV from one (unidentified) person in mid-2013 was somehow transmitted directly and indirectly over 18 months to 63 men and women.[34] Such fast transmission does not seem possible through sex, with transmission through vaginal sex requiring on average circa 1,000 coital acts; even for receptive anal sex an estimated average of 70 events are required for each transmission.[24] However, such rapid transmission is seen in nosocomial outbreaks; compare, for example, the phylogenetic tree of HIV genetic sequences from an outbreak in Cambodia[35] with the cluster of 63 HIV sequences from KwaZulu-Natal (slide 10 in [34]).

Unexplained infections in pregnant women: Four studies reported numbers of new HIV infections and rates of HIV incidence ranging from 10.7%-11.2% per year (or data to calculate these statistics[36]) in pregnant women during 2002-12. Women would not get HIV through sex at such rates unless all or almost all of their partners were infected. But during those years, less than 15% of adult men in South Africa were HIV-positive[4]; and many HIV-positive married men were married to women who were already infected.[37] The four studies are as follows: Wand and colleagues followed pregnant women in Durban during 2002-5, reporting data to calculate 81 incident infections in pregnant women and incidence of 10% per year[38]; Moodley and colleagues followed pregnant women in Mpumulanga, Eastern Cape, and Free State during 2006-7, observing 72 incident infections and incidence of 10.7% per year[39]; Kharsany and colleagues followed pregnant women in KwaZulu-Natal during 2007-8, observing four incident infections and calculating incidence of 11.2% per year[40]; and Dinh and colleagues reported 212 incident infections in a national sample of pregnant women and data to calculate incidence at 11% per year.[41]

HIV in high school virgin boys and girls: A 2012 survey of students in grades 8-12, averaging 15.8 years old, in KwaZulu-Natal reported 21 (55%) of 38 HIV-positive boys said they were virgins as did 56 (54%) of HIV-positive girls.[42]

HIV incidence in adults with no reported sex risks: The South Africa HIV Prevalence, Incidence, Behaviour and Communication Survey, 2005 (the second such national survey) reported HIV incidence of 1.5% per year in self-reported virgin adults, 2.4% per year in non-virgin adults who reported no sex in the previous year, and a similar 2.4% per year in adults who said they had been sexually active in the previous year.[43]

South Africa’s early epidemic doubles in 9-14 months: At the beginning of the HIV epidemic among Black South Africans in the late 1980s, the number of HIV-positive people doubled in about nine months[44]. During 1990-94, the doubling time for HIV prevalence in pregnant women throughout South Africa averaged 14 months (from 0.7% in 1990 to 7.6% in 1994).[45] The speed of transmission required for such rapid epidemic expansion is much faster can be explained by estimated rates of sexual transmission (1 per 1,000 coital acts or 10% per year between discordant couples[24-31]).

Fixing South Africa’s incomplete HIV prevention program: investigating unexplained infections

South Africa’s promotion of testing and treatment to reach 90-90-90 targets can be expected to slash sexual transmission. As targets are reached, more than 70% (~90% x 90% x 90%) of those infected will have suppressed viral loads and very little risk to transmit to a sexual partner. And with more testing, more people will know if partners are infected, so they will know to be careful.

But 90-90-90 may have less limited impact on blood-borne transmission. Based on outbreak investigations in other countries, blood-borne infections are often found in bunches. For example, HIV went from one in-patient baby to 265 children in 16 months in Russia,[14] from one to 418 infections in 3-4 years in Libya,[46] and from two to more than 200 infections in several years in Cambodia.[35] Large outbreaks characteristically come from facilities giving repeat treatments, where some people infected earlier get another procedure within weeks to month when they have primary infections and high viral loads, making their blood more dangerous and contributing to later transmissions.

The frequent bunching of blood-borne infections from specific facilities means that any identified unexpected HIV infection should be considered – until proven otherwise – to be one of many in an outbreak. When onward transmission occurs within several months, routine testing is not likely to find people with new blood-borne infections before they infect others through the outbreak. Moreover, even if someone tests HIV-positive with a very early infection, if the only risk anyone thinks about is sex, knowing he or she is infected would have no impact on their getting more skin-piercing procedures at the facility that is the source of the outbreak.

Educating health care workers – a continuing effort – has not stopped unexpected infections. Without outbreak investigations, no one knows the specific skin-piercing procedures and facilities responsible for unexpected infections, so there is no way to know where and how to focus efforts to repair dangerous procedures. Investigations in other countries have implicated a long list of health care procedures, including intra-muscular and intravenous injections, flushing intravenous lines, taking medicine from multi-dose vials, dental care, blood tests, blood and plasma donation, and others. Skin-piercing cosmetic procedures, such as tattooing, shaving, and manicures may also be involved.

Getting from no to yes: Officials in the government of South Africa have for decades consistently decided not to investigate unexpected infections. Increasing public awareness of unexpected infections could create public pressure for investigations. Libya and Cambodia provide examples of public pressure successfully pushing governments to investigate.

  • In Libya in August 1998, a magazine reported HIV infections in children traced to the El Fatah Hospital, Benghazi. The government’s initial response was to close the magazine. But parents did not take “no” for an answer. In November 1998 “a group of desperate fathers interrupted a medical conference Ghadafi was attending in Benghazi and appealed to him for help.”[47] Gaddafi ordered treatment for infected children and an investigation that offered HIV tests to all children treated at El Fatah Hospital in the previous year. The investigation found 418 children with HIV from healthcare.
  • In Roka, Cambodia, in November 2014, a 74-year-old man tested HIV-positive. Surprised, he sent his son-in-law and granddaughter for tests; both were infected. More villagers, alerted and worried, went for tests; many found they were infected. Acting on this information, government began an investigation in mid-December. The investigation reported 242 infections, attributing most if not all to skin-piercing procedures from a local private health care provider.[48,49]

With South Africa pursuing 90-90-90 targets, more people are getting tested. In the 2017 national HIV survey, 75.2% said they had ever been tested for HIV, and 66.8% had been tested within the past 12 months.[3] For many South Africans, an HIV-positive test comes as a surprise. In the previous 2012 survey 80% of adults considered themselves at low risk for HIV, giving reasons such as: “I use condoms”; “I abstain from sex”; “I am faithful to my partner.” But many self-assessed low risk adults were infected, accounting for 56% of adult HIV infections (calculated from data in Table 3.56 in [18]). As testing expands, more people are finding themselves with unexpected infections.

What happens next may well depend on whether people who have unexpected infections are able to get a respectful hearing from counselors, the media, churches, lawyers, support groups, non-government organizations, etc. To date, too few of those who manage or participate in public dialogue about HIV have been willing to believe people who report unexpected infections and to push government to mount the proper response to protect public health, i.e., to investigate, to look for outbreaks.

Making investigations work for public health: From a public health point of view, the priority for investigations is to determine the extent of the problem (to find all who were infected in each investigated outbreak) and to identify specific procedural lapses and facilities responsible. What might be ideal under such circumstances is for government to legislate to allow no-fault investigations along the lines of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Attempting to punish or to collect compensation can create situations of conflict in which people who know what happened are motivated not to tell, investigators are pressured not to look, and blame and punishment fall on scapegoats. Open and thorough investigations educate and alert everyone – health care staff, cosmetic service providers, and the public – to be more aware of blood-borne risks. Punishing past mistakes is not necessary to improve health care safety; many health care staff will no doubt be mortified to learn that what they thought was safe may have infected patients. As for compensation, considering decades of inaction and inattention, it is not easy to identify anyone other than the government which both shares responsibility and has resources commensurate with whatever the problem might be. In any case, those who have been harmed already have free treatment.

Public trust in healthcare safety: Although officials have not explained why they have not investigated unexpected HIV infections, one reason may have been to maintain public trust in health care safety. Outbreak investigations that ask former patients at specific facilities to come for HIV tests challenge that trust by making the public aware of possible mistakes. But that is only a short term view of the matter. Acknowledging, investigating, and fixing problems builds trust in the long term.


No one has identified differences in sexual behavior that could explain much higher HIV prevalence in South Africa than in all non-African countries as well as in all but a few regional countries in Africa. One possible explanation is that lapses in health care safety have been driving South Africa’s epidemic. If that is so, then investigations of unexpected infections could lead to a dramatic drop in HIV transmission.

But even if blood-borne risks make only a limited contribution to South Africa’s epidemic, investigations protect public health. According to the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Lisbon on the Rights of the Patient, health care managers and providers have a responsibility to give patients “medical care of good quality” and “health education that will assist him/her in making informed choices about personal health and about the available health services.”[51] Without outbreak investigations, this is not possible.

Similarly, even if blood-borne risks make only a limited contribution to South Africa’s epidemic, investigations that recognize blood-borne transmission at any level undermine the stigmatizing belief that an HIV infection is a sign of sexual behavior.


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WHO’s early AIDS experts misdirected HIV prevention

Michael Merson, the second head of WHO’s Global Program on AIDS and co-author Steven Inrig describe WHO’s early AIDS response in The AIDS Pandemic: Searching for a Global Response.[1] Unfortunately, their otherwise excellent and detailed history ignores a tragic and continuing failure: the decision by WHO’s experts to accept an unknown  number of HIV infections from unsafe healthcare.

This misdirection has continued. Daniel Fernando reviews the confusion that led to this misdirection in a recent article[2]: “Already by 1985, WHO staff declared ‘Heterosexual promiscuity (large number of partners) is the most important risk factor among adult AIDS patients in Africa.’[quoted from page 9 in reference 3]…If iatrogenic transmissions had been taken seriously and addressed early, HIV in Africa would have been different.” (If you want a pdf Daniel’s article, email him at:

In a prominent 1986 paper in the prestigious journal Science, the first head of WHO’s Global Program on AIDS, 1986-91, and the subsequent first director of UNAIDS, 1996-2008, wrote [p 962 in reference 4]: “…one cannot expect public health officials to upgrade blood transfusion services to prevent HIV infection when the proposed intervention is likely to cost, per person, approximately 30 times the annual per capita public health budget. Similarly, one cannot hope to prevent reuse of disposable injection equipment when many hospital budgets are insufficient for the purchase of antibiotics.”

As if this wasn’t enough, when WHO’s experts decided to give a pass to unsafe healthcare in Africa, they didn’t know how serious it would be. There was no evidence at the time – and there still is no evidence – to say with any confidence that blood exposures account for not more than 10% or as much as 50% or 75% or more. The almost exclusive focus on sex was and is based on insufficient evidence.

Although Merson and Inrig recount many events in WHO’s early response to AIDS, they all but ignore what WHO’s experts knew and thought about HIV from unsafe healthcare. The index at the end of the book doesn’t even include these terms: “blood,” “nosocomial,” “iatrogenic,” “injections, medical,” and “scarification.”

Unsafe healthcare was and is the forgotten risk. Africans in large numbers are still getting HIV from this forgotten risk. How many? No one knows.


1. Merson M, Inrig S. The AIDS pandemic: searching for a global response. Switzerland: Springer International, 2018.

2. Fernando D. The AIDS pandemic: searching for a global response. J Assoc Nurses AIDS Care 2018: 29: 635-641. Article available by request from Daniel Fernando at: Abstract available at: 9 January 2019).

3. World Health Organization (WHO). Workshop on AIDS in Central Africa: Bangui, Central African Republic from 22 to 25 October 1985. Geneva; WHO: 1985. Retrieved from

4. Quinn T. C., Mann J. M., Curran J. W., Piot P. (1986). AIDS in Africa: An epidemiologic paradigm. Science, 234(4779), 955-963. Retrieved from

More unexplained HIV infections in KwaZulu-Natal: time to investigate!

Background: Beginning in 2004, the Africa Health Research Institute in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, has been testing a random sample of adults for HIV infection in a study area extending about 21 km x 21 km northwest of Mtubatuba town. The study area has one of the worst HIV epidemics in the world: as of 2014, 36% of women and 27% of men aged ≥15 years were infected (about 9,000 out of 30,000 adults)[1,2].

Recently, the Institute “sequenced” HIV (determined the order of small molecules in each HIV) from 1,376 adults in the study area. From these sequences, the Institute found a group (cluster) of 63 very similar sequences. Because HIV sequences change over time, if a cluster of sequences are almost the same, it means HIV from one person not long ago infected everyone in the cluster.

How long did it take for HIV from one person to infect 63 people? The Institute estimated it took one year only, from mid-2013 to mid-2014 for HIV to pass from one person directly and indirectly (through others, in short transmission chains) to 63 people (see the large cluster in the upper right in slide 10 of Coltart’s 2018 presentation).[3]

To go from 1 to 63 infections in 12 months the number of infections doubled almost 6 times – doubling on average every 2 months from 1 to 2 infections, 2 to 4 infections, etc, to 63 infections. Everything we know about sexual transmission of HIV says sex doesn’t do that! With hetero sex, it takes on average 1,000 coital acts for one person to infect another; that takes a lot more than 2 months. Even for male-male sex, it takes ≥30 penis-in-anus events for one transmission; that also takes time.

Such fast transmission is possible when hospitals or clinics reuse unsterilized skin-piercing instruments. Governments investigating unexplained HIV infections have found such tragedies in Russia, Romania, Libya, and other countries.

The cluster of 63 sequences in KwaZulu-Natal looks like a cluster of sequences from an investigated outbreak in Roka, Cambodia: In late 2014, several residents in Roka, a rural community in Cambodia, found they were HIV-positive although they had no sex risks. The Cambodian government investigated, testing all people in the community. The investigation found 242 HIV-positive residents and traced most infections to injections and other skin-piercing procedures from a local private healthcare provider.

Foreign organizations helping with the investigation sequenced several hundred HIV from the community. Almost all sequences were very similar, showing fast transmission from 1 to 198 infections in a few short years. These sequences can be presented as branches in a “tree” (Figure 1, below[4]). The upper right section of the tree shows the cluster of very similar sequences from Roka. (Most sequences in the lower part of the tree are “controls,” which means the HIV came from other times and places.) The tree shows each HIV infection as the right end-point of a horizontal line. The left ends of these lines show estimated connections to earlier estimated infections. Because the cluster includes very recent infections only, all lines in the upper right are very short. The timeline at the bottom of the figure shows time going from left to right, showing the estimated dates of transmission from earlier to later infections.

Figure 1: Cluster of 198 infections in Roka, Cambodia, linked by transmissions during 2011-14[4]

env_timetree_baltic (1)

If 63 sequences from KwaZulu-Natal came from unsafe healthcare, how many people got infected in the outbreak? The cluster of 63 HIV sequences (see slide 10) is from a 15% sample of HIV-positive adults in the study area (1,347 out of an estimated 9,000 infected adults). If someone could sequence HIV from all 9,000, one could expect to find 420 (= 63/0.15) sequences in the cluster, all from people with new and closely linked infections. Moreover, many of the 63 infections came from Mtubaba town on the southwest edge of the study area. If a hospital or clinic in Mtubatuba town was infecting patients, it’s likely the outbreak also extends south and east of the town. Hence, the number of people infected from whatever caused the cluster might well exceed 1,000. And transmission looked like it was continuing when the Institute collected the last HIV samples it sequenced (see slide 10).

What’s the response to this evidence? Investigating the cluster – to find all who have been infected in the outbreak and to find and stop the sources – is a job for public health. As long as the sources of unexpected infections are not found and stopped, public health should also be warning people about blood-borne risks.

If the South African government were to investigate, what could it do? A first task would be to interview people in the cluster to find where they got health care, dental care, tattooing, or other skin-piercing procedures in 2013-14. Once one or more facilities are identified as the possible sources of at least some infections, public health staff could visit the facilities to look for – and fix – dangerous mistakes. At the same time, government could make a public request for people who got skin-piercing procedures at suspected facilities to come for tests. If someone is infected, start treatment. At the same time, investigators could sequence their HIV to see if it’s similar to HIV in the cluster.


1. Vandormael A, Barnighausen T, Herbeck J, et al. Longitudinal trends in the prevalence of detectable HIV viremia: population-based evidence from rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Clin Infect Dis 2018; 66: 1254-1260. Abstract available at: (accessed 16 November 2018).

2. Larmarange J, Mossong J, Barnighausen T, et al. Participation dynamics in population-based longitudinal HIV surveillance in rural South Africa. PLoS ONE 2015; 10: e012345. Available at: (accessed 16 November 2018).

3. Slide 10 in: Coltart C, Shahmanesh M, Hue S, et al. Ongoing HIV micro-epidemics in rural South Africa: the need for flexible interventions. Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, 4-7 March 2018. Available at: (accessed 4 April 2018).

4. Roka/HIV/bayesian_timetree. Evolutionary and epidemiological analysis of the Roka HIV outbreak. Bedford Lab. Available at: (accessed 15 November 2018). This figure has been copied by permission from Bedford Lab.

Unexplained HIV infections in KwaZulu-Natal: Time to investigate?

It’s decades too late to prevent Africa’s HIV epidemics. But it’s not too late to stop them! When will politicians tell ministries of health to investigate unexpected HIV infections?

There are many places to begin. Here’s one. An article in the journal Lancet HIV, August 2018, reported results from a 2014-15 survey in uMgungundlovu district, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.[1] Among women, 44.1% of adults were HIV-positive, including 66.4% of women aged 35-39 years. As for men, 28.0% of adults were infected, including 59.6% of men aged 40-44 years.

Compare this to what happens outside Africa: 0.3% (3 in 1,000) of adults are infected,[2] with infections concentrating in injection drug users and men who have sex with men.

Why do adults in KwaZulu-Natal have hundreds of times more HIV than low risk adults outside Africa? What’s different?

One clue from the survey is that 11.2% of (self-reported) virgin women were HIV-positive, as were 9.0% of (self-reported) virgin men. Another clue is that the percent of young women with HIV increased precipitously: by 34% in 8 years only, from 6.0% at 15-16 years to 40.1% at 23-24 years. The authors want to blame this on sex. But sex can’t explain it: 3/5ths of surveyed women started having sex at age 18 years or later; more than 95% who reported sex in the previous year reported only one partner; and less than 15% lived with a man, making it convenient for them to have frequent sex.

What else could it be? It’s time to take a good look at unexplained HIV (11% of virgin women had unexplained HIV!) to see if such infections came from unsafe healthcare. Beginning in 1988, governments outside Africa have investigated unexplained infections to uncover HIV outbreaks from healthcare with hundreds to thousands of victims.

So far, there have been no such investigations in Africa. But year-by-year, with more HIV testing, more men and women are finding they are HIV positive despite no sex risks. Will increasing public awareness of unexplained infections in KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere in Africa translate into public demands to investigate?

Finding the hospital or clinic that infected a particular patient is not enough. Once a facility is suspected to have infected one person, it’s important to invite other patients to come for tests, and to report findings to the public. Finding all the people infected in an outbreak can identify unexpected risks. Openness and honesty is the way to go. Telling the public generates support for safe care. Punishing specific healthcare workers can be a distracting witch hunt – in an outbreak, it’s likely many doctors and nurses infected patients due to ignorance, thinking what they did was safe, not from any intent to harm. Finding and fixing mistakes should be the priority.


1. Kharsany ABM, Cawood C, Khanyile D, et al. Community-based HIV prevalence in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa: results of a cross-sectional household survey. Lancet HIV 2018; 5: e 427-e437. Abstract available at: (accessed 23 October 2018).

2. UNAIDS. HIV estimates with uncertainty bounds 1990-2017. Geneva: UNAIDS, 2018. Available at: (accessed 5 January  2019).

AIDS: Prevention of nosocomial infections

Authors: Jäger H, Gisselquist D [this blog was originally posted on 27 July 2018 at:


Transmission of HIV through health care facilities has been neglected in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The 2018 World AIDS Conference ignored health care risks that have been described in detail for decades (Gonzac 2008Grimm 2011Goldwater 2013), and also outbreak events such as in Cambodia from 2014-2015 (Rouet 2018).

Would it be useful to pay more attention to the subject? ” … the decision of WHO, Western researchers, and the media to ignore the role of reuse of contaminated syringes and needles in health care settings and to instead emphasize African people’s sex with multiple partners was .. critical in the explosion of HIV in Africa … If iatrogenic transmissions had been taken seriously and addressed early, HIV in Africa would have been different (Fernando 2018).”

Why Africa?

Four countries with 0.8% of the world’s population – South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland – have 21% of the world’s HIV infections (2016 data, UNAIDS 2017). Adult HIV prevalence was 27.2% in Swaziland, 25% in Lesotho, 21.9% in Botswana, and 18.9% in South Africa. In the same year, all of sub-Saharan Africa had 69% of the world’s HIV infections (25.4 of 37.6 million), including 80% of infections in women (14.1 of 17.8 million). HIV not only infects more people in Africa, but also more women: the ratio of women to men with HIV is 1.5 in Africa, whereas in the rest of the world it’s 0.52.

Surveys find sexual behaviour in Africa is similar or safer than in Europe. Can risks other than sex explain why so many people in Africa get HIV?

Lots of evidence says: Yes.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, most official HIV/AIDS experts have ignored abundant evidence unsafe healthcare risks transmit HIV in Africa (Potterat 2016). For example, over 12 weeks in June-August 1985, Project SIDA in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo) tested 258 in-patient children aged 2-24 months at Mama Yemo Hospital in Kinshasa and their mothers for HIV; 32 children were HIV-positive, of which 16 had HIV-negative mothers. The paper that reported these infections noted that children had received injections (p 656, Mann 1986) “in dispensaries which reuse needles and syringes yet may not adequately sterilize their injection equipment.” But there was no investigation – no call for other children to come for tests, and no report of steps taken to prevent future infections.

Another paper by three of the same authors shows the thinking behind the failure to investigate (p 962, Quinn 1986): “one cannot hope to prevent reuse of disposable injection equipment when many hospital budgets are insufficient for the purchase of antibiotics.” In effect, the authors accepted an unknown frequency of nosocomial HIV transmission in Mama Yemo Hospital and elsewhere in Africa. The authors of these two papers include leaders of the international response to AIDS for 22 years: Jonathan Mann led WHO’s Global Program on AIDS during 1986-90; and Peter Piot led UNAIDS during 1995-2008.

Over the years, there has been a continuing flood of evidence for unsafe healthcare and nosocomial HIV transmission in Africa. Jaeger (1991) and N’tita (1991) detailed risks with untested blood and unsterile instruments and procedures. Beginning from 1999, USAID has worked with African governments to survey health facilities: during 2006-15, surveys in six countries in East and Southern Africa reported that 17%-88% (median 68%) of clinics, dispensaries, health centers, and hospitals had equipment to sterilize instruments (USAID no date).

Beginning from 2001, USAID has worked with African governments to test random samples of adults (and sometimes children) for HIV; tests are coupled with questions about sexual behavior. During 2004-15, 11 surveys in Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Mozambique reported HIV infections in self-declared virgins: in 11 surveys; across all 11 surveys, 2.2%-5.5% (median 3.6%) of self-declared virgin women and 0.6%-6.7% (median 3.1%) of self-declared virgin men were HIV-positive. In 2006, 22% of HIV-positive children aged 2-11 years in Swaziland had mothers who tested HIV-negative (Okinyi 2009); in Mozambique, 28% of HIV-positive children aged 0-11 years had mothers who tested HIV-negative (USAID no date).

In a 2012 survey of more than 3,000 high school students aged 12->20 years in KwaZulu-Natal, 6.2% of girls and 2.5% of boys were HIV-positive. More than half of the HIV-positive girls and boys said they were virgins (Kharsany, 2014).

A phylogenetic analysis of 1,376 HIV samples collected during 2010-14 from a random sample of adults in KwaZulu-Natal found a large cluster of 75 sequences, including a sub-cluster of more than 60 sequences. Phylogenetic analysis estimated all infections in the sub-cluster were acquired over 12 months from mid-2013 to mid-2014 (Coltart, 2018). Because the study sequenced an estimated 15% of HIV from adults in the community, and because the cluster likely extended beyond the sampled population, the number of infections in the sub-cluster in mid-2014 was likely well over 500; because transmission was ongoing when the samples were collected, whatever was causing the sub-cluster may have continued to infect hundreds more. Rapid transmission within this sub-cluster – much too fast to be explained by sexual transmission – is similar to what investigations have found in nosocomial outbreaks in Russia, Romania, Libya, Cambodia, and elsewhere.

In 2011, Grimm and Class (2011) urged Germany’s Development Bank (KfW) to pay attention to evidence “an important share of new infections in high prevalence settings occurs through blood exposures in formal and informal healthcare,” and called for “interventions targeted to strengthening the health care system in general and infection control in particular.”

When asked on 22 December 2017, what conclusions KfW drew from that paper, Patrick Rudolph, Sector Policy Unit Health & Social Protection, KfW, responded on 19 January 2018: “… In South Africa – currently the only country in which the fight against HIV is the focus of German development cooperation in the health sector – the focus is clearly on preventing the sexual transmission of the pathogen …” But how can he be so sure that HIV proliferation in South Africa can only be explained by sexual activity?

Apart from risky sexual contacts, people in Africa as well as in other countries with less intense generalized HIV epidemics face many other risks, including:

  • Unsterile and often unnecessary medical procedures
  • Cosmetic services, traditional markings and mutilations in girls and boys
  • Depo-Provera (DMPA) for birth control, which increases women’s risk to acquire and to transmit HIV (Hapgood, 2018); 70% of DMPA in Africa was delivered within the framework of development cooperation.
  • Campaigns to circumcise millions of men in Africa (Howe 2011) despite evidence of high risk for surgery in Africa (Weisser, 2008; Biccard, 2018).

Aside from HIV, skin-piercing procedures with unsterile instruments are responsible for almost all of Africa’s heavy burden of hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections. Treatment alone will not solve Africa’s burden of HCV disease. WHO’s strategy to treat HCV will enrich Gilead and some health institutions, but lower HCV incidence will be, at best, modest if “bad medicine” and “drug addiction” are not targeted — eradicated or at least reduced.

What to do to slow HIV and HCV transmission in Africa?

WHO and other international health organizations should urge African governments to:

  • discourage unnecessary injections, surgery, transfusions and other skin piercing procedures;
  • strengthen quality control, including especially reliable sterilization of reused skin-piercing instruments;
  • educate the public about dangers from unsafe and unnecessary healthcare.

A key component of both healthcare quality control and public education about risks is to investigate adverse events – such as suspected nosocomial HIV and HCV infections — and to report findings to the public. Investigations trace and test patients attending hospitals and clinics suspected to be responsible for nosocomial infections. Governments of Russia (1988-89), Romania (from 1989), China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Libya (from 1998), Cambodia (2014-15), and other countries investigated suspected nosocomial infections to find hundreds to thousands of infections (see summaries and references in: Gisselquist 2007; Gisselquist no date).

To date, no government in sub-Saharan Africa has investigated suspected nosocomial HIV infections to see if they are part of an outbreak. This has been a huge mistake.



Did dirty healthcare infect a lot of people in KwaZulu-Natal?

For decades, researchers have not been able to explain how so many people in Africa could be getting HIV from sex. At the same time, researchers and public health managers have been ignoring evidence a lot of HIV infections don’t come from sex. For example, a survey of students in five high schools in Vulindlela subdistrict in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, reported 56 (54% of) 104 HIV-positive girls said they were virgins; and so did 21 (55%) of 38 HIV-positive boys.[1] Instead of believing students, the study team suggested students lied about being virgins.

Some new evidence may be harder to sweep under the rug. First some explanation of what this evidence shows. Each HIV is a large molecule made of thousands of parts (smaller molecules). Over time, these parts change little by little. Researchers can take HIV from anyone and “sequence” it to determine its parts. After taking HIV from a lot of people,  they can do a “phylogenetic analysis,” looking for similarities among HIV from different people. Very similar HIV can show one person very likely infected the other. If two HIV are less similar, transmission may have happened a long time ago, or may not have been direct, but rather through others. With phylogenetic analysis, researchers can draw trees (phylogenetic trees) showing the likely connections among a lot of HIV.

Now the new evidence: In March 2018, a team of researchers from South Africa and the UK reported a study that sequenced more than 1,300 HIV collected from adults in uMkhanyakude District, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa.[2] They were surprised to find a cluster of 75 very similar HIV. Even more telling, most of the links (transmissions) in this cluster occurred during a matter of months in 2014.

Slide 10 in the presentation by Coltart (click here and scroll down to slide 10) shows the portion of their tree that includes this cluster.[2] Each horizontal line represents HIV from a different person. The short vertical lines that connect the horizontal lines show who seems to have infected whom (either directly or indirectly). The timeline on the bottom shows when transmissions likely occurred.

Most people in this cluster got infected in 2014. Such rapid transmission to so many people is what one would expect from a blood-borne outbreak – maybe from a hospital or clinic reusing bloody instruments. Distressingly, neither the presenter at the March 2018 conference nor anyone who asked questions mentioned nosocomial (healthcare) risks. As far as researchers are concerned, it’s all about sex…blaming the victim.

More than a dozen large HIV outbreaks with 100s or more infected by healthcare have been investigated in Asia, North Africa, Latin America, and Central and East Europe (click on “outbreaks and unexplained cases” in the menu on the right). But nobody has investigated any blood-borne HIV outbreak in Africa. Will someone finally wake up and look at what’s happening in KwaZulu-Natal?

In any case, people living in communities with a lot of HIV in Africa should be careful about blood exposures. Make sure skin-piercing instruments are at least boiled. Be aware: you can’t trust the researchers and public health managers to protect you from HIV during healthcare. They have been denying and ignoring the risk…and blaming HIV-positive people for sexual misbehavior.


1. Kharsany ABM, Buthelezi TJ, Frohlich JA, et al. HIV infection in high school students in rural South Africa: role of transmission among students. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 2014; 30: 956-965, Available at: (accessed 4 April 2018).

2. Coltart C, Shahmanesh M, Hue S, et al. Ongoing HIV micro-epidemics in rural South Africa: the need for flexible interventions. Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, 4-7 March 2018. Available at: (accessed 4 April 2018).

New reports of HIV outbreaks from unsafe healthcare in India and Pakistan

The outbreaks

India: On 5 February 2018, newspapers reported a nosocomial HIV outbreak in Unnao after multiple HIV-positive tests at health camps on 24-27 January. Many of the infected reported injections from a quack.[1] As of 10 February, 75 HIV infections have been reported in the outbreak, including at least 6 children; testing continues[2].

Pakistan: On 15 February 2018, the Daily Pakistan reported 22 identified HIV infections in Kot Momin. The article reports speculation that treatments by a quack doctor spread HIV.[3]

Director General of India’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) misleads and stigmatizes

After a team from India’s National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) visited Unnao on 7 February, the NACO Director, Sanjeeva Kumar said: “The virus can’t survive in the sun beyond a minute, so while a contaminated syringe may have caused stray infections, it cannot lead to a spurt in HIV cases.”

The Director’s statement is dead wrong and dangerous in three ways:

(a) The virus survives for hours in the open air, even when dry (see references at:

(b) The comment ignores investigated outbreaks in Russia, Romania, Libya, etc (see references at:

(c) The NACO’s Director’s comments stigmatize any resident of Unnao who speaks out to say they have an HIV infection from health care — stigmatizing them with suspicion they are promiscuous. Was it the intent of the Director to stigmatize and thereby silence people who might speak out about HIV from healthcare?

Government of Pakistan promises a thorough investigation

Quote from Urdu Point, 17 February 2018:[5] “Punjab Health Minister Khawaja Imran Nazir has said that emergency steps have been taken to control increasing cases of HIV Aids and Hepatitis in and around Kot Imrana near Kotmomin on the directions of Chief Minister Punjab Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif.”

“During his visit to a medical camp set up at the village for collection of blood samples of the area people, the minister said that thousand of samples had been sent to laboratory so far and the report would be received on Feb 20. He said that after receiving of the reports, the affected people would be provided free-of-cost treatment while a well-equipped laboratory for HIV and Hepatitis would be functional at THQ Kotmomin within two weeks.”


1. Unnao HIV cases: chief medical officer got alert in July but didn’t act. NYOOZ, 11 February 2018. Available at:–chief-medical-officer-got-alert-in-july-but-didnt-act/ (accessed 21 February 2018).

2. Williams H. Fake doctor infects 75 Indian patients with HIV. World Report Now, 10 February 2018. Available at: (accessed 21 February 2018).

3. Rehman D. The shocking reason AIDS is spreading in this Pakistani village for last 15 years. Daily Pakistan 15 February 2018. Available at: (accessed 21 February 2018).

4. Kaul R. Report on Unnao HIV cases: Migrant population unprotected sex among main causes. Hindustan Times, 18 February 2018. Available at:  (accessed 18 February 2018).

5. Shabbir F. Punjab health minister for provision of better health facilities in Kot Momin. Urdu Point, 17 February 2018. Available at: (accessed 21 February 2018).

Breaking the silence: asking KfW what it’s doing about HIV from healthcare

In 2011, Grimm and Class[1] urged Germany’s Development Bank (KfW) to pay attention to evidence “an important share of new infections in high prevalence settings occurs through blood exposures in formal and informal healthcare,” and called for “interventions targeted to strengthening the health care system in general and infection control in particular.”

How has KfW responded? Helmut Jager, a medical doctor, initiated an email exchange with KfW to ask just that. He documents the dialogue on his website[2] (for those who can’t read German, here’s a translation tool:

Questions to KfW on 22 December 2017:

What conclusions did KFW 2012 draw from the analysis of the authors Grimm and Class of 2011?

To your knowledge, have there been epidemiological studies on HIV outbreaks ever since that time…?

What measures does KfW support to prevent iatrogenic and nosocomial infections (especially hepatitis C and HIV)?

Answer by Patrick Rudolph, KfW, Sector Policy Unit Health & Social Protection, on 19 January 2018:

… thank you for your interest in the position and commitment of KfW Entwicklungsbank in the field of infection prevention.

… The key factors for the direction and design of such [HIV] projects are therefore the partner’s sector strategy considerations and the corresponding guidelines of the Federal Government (including the strategy for the control of HIV, hepatitis B and C and other sexually transmitted infections).

We support… a differentiated, demand-oriented and multisectoral approach to HIV prevention depending on the specific micro-epidemiological constellations. This may include measures to prevent both sexual and iatrogenic infections… [I]n South Africa – currently the only country in which the fight against HIV is the focus of German development cooperation in the health sector – the focus is clearly on preventing the sexual transmission of the pathogen…

In response, Dr Jager mailed these additional questions to Dr Rudolph, KfW, on 19 January 2018:

… thank you very much for your reply… Unfortunately, you have not answered my specific questions.

As early as 1990, we had already published that with regard to infections caused by the health care system, the technical equipment of blood banks was not able to solve the quantitatively much bigger problem (unnecessary indications, lack of user hygiene and improper handling of needles and syringes). The consequence of this knowledge should have been investments in the control and prevention of dangerous medical applications. This is evidently not done for the most part…

Are you really sure that…HIV proliferation in South Africa, for example, can only be explained by sexual activity? My doubts intensify among other things a study of 2014 (Kharsany 2014[3]) describing the dynamics of HIV infection of high school students in rural South Africa: 6.8% of girls were infected [including many self-reported virgins]… Where these girls infected themselves with HIV… remained unclear…

As this exchange shows, Dr Jager is challenging those who pay for HIV prevention programs to reconsider their lack of attention to HIV from unsafe healthcare. But Helmut Jager’s website is about a lot more than HIV risks in Africa; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the history of healthcare, problems in healthcare systems, and future options.


  1. Grimm M, Class D. The fight against HIV/AIDS must be brought into balance. KFW-Development Research: views on development. No 3, 24 June 2011. Available at: (accessed 8 February 2018).
  2. Helmut Jager. AIDS in Afrika. Available at: (accessed 8 February 2018).
  3. Karsany ABM, Buthelezi TJ, Frolich JA, et al: HIV infection in high school students in rural South Africa: role of transmission among students. AIDS Res Hum Retroviruses 2014; 30: 956-965. Available at: (accessed 9 February 2018).


Hepatitis C eradication and profit

Note: This is a guest blog by Helmut Jäger. Dr Jäger’s website and blog provides more information and thoughtful comments on healthcare issues at:

Good news: hepatitis C can be cured

Since 2016, the World Health Organization recommends treating hepatitis C infection with sofosbuvir (NS5B-Polymerase-inhibitor)The manufacturer (Gilead) demands an extremely high price, and

“.. the public paid twice: for the pharmaceutical research and for the purchase of the product. The enormous profits flow to the Gilead shareholders.”(Roy BMJ 2016, 354: i3718)

The evidence for the effectiveness of direct-acting antivirals (DAA) for chronic hepatitis C comes from short-term trials. Cochrane is unable to determine the effect of long-term treatment with these drugs:

DAAs may reduce the number of people with detectable virus in their blood, but we do not have sufficient evidence from randomised trials that enables us to understand how SVR (sustained virological response: eradication of hepatitis C virus from the blood) affects long-term clinical outcomes. SVR is still an outcome that needs proper validation in randomised clinical trials. (Cochrane 18.09.2017:

Egypt is particularly affected by hepatitis C. Here the government negotiated special discounts with Gilead, so that relatively cheap treatment will be available. It’s the foundation of just another lucrative business based on a man-made disaster.


Tour’n Cure: The profitable medical eradication of a problem that would not exist without medicine.

Bad news: Hepatitis C will still be transmitted by skin piercing procedures

About 2-3% of the world’s population is infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV); 350,000 of these 130-170 million people die per year. HCV causes liver infections, which are chronic in more than 70% of infected persons. That is, they do not completely cure after an infection. After one or maybe two decades, the damaged liver can fail, or develop cancer. The survival rates are low in the late stages of the disease, even under optimal treatment conditions.

Hepatitis C viruses are very sensitive to environmental influences so they are transmitted almost exclusively through blood or blood products or unclean syringes. Unlike hepatitis B or HIV/AIDS, HCV infections through sexual contacts are rare. Hence, the incidence of HCV is an indicator of a dangerous handling of needles, syringes, other medical instruments or products that lead to a direct blood contact. And new cases of HCV are acquired most likely in health care facilities or by intravenous drug use.

Treatment of disease and prevention of new infections 

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in 2016 that it wants to “combat” hepatitis C and “exterminate” it by 2030. (WHO 2017:


Hazardous needles somewhere in Africa (image: Jäger, Kinsahsa 1988)

WHO’s optimism is caused by the availability of sofosbuvir. The drug is said to have cured up to 90% of affected patients in clinical trials, and consequently was added to the WHO list of essential medicines. The pharmaceutical company Gilead faces a huge global market with high profit margins (WIPO 2015): The treatment costs in the US are US$84,000 and in the Netherlands €46,000. The production cost of the drug is estimated not to exceed US$140.(‘T Hoen 2016)

Most people affected by hepatitis C are poor. They now learn through the media that their suffering could be cured, and at the same time that this solution seems to be unavailable to them. Consequently, they will demand the necessary funds for humanitarian reasons from their governments. Gilead expects sofosbuvir will not be manufactured and sold without a license (about 100 times cheaper). The Indian authorities already concluded in 2016 a license agreement with Gilead, which will guarantee high profit rates on the subcontinent.(‘T Hoen 2016)

Attractive medical products and markets increase the risk of the production of counterfeit medicines

In India, the requirement to allow the production of the hepatitis C drug in the “national interest” license-free is not only risky for legal reasons. India already is the world’s leading producer of fake medicines. Counterfeit drugs look exactly like real ones, but contain nothing (in the best case) or poison. About 35% of the malaria drugs in the African market are fake or useless, and they are mostly from India or China (see below: fake drugs). In the case of Egypt, medical institutions tried to open up a lucrative international market (“Tour’n cure”). Therefore, it will not be long until the first fake “sofosbuvir preparations” are offered.

The history of the hepatitis C epidemic in Egypt

The disaster of hepatitis C contamination started in Egypt more than sixty years ago. Efforts to regulate the Nile increased the risk of schistosomiasis infections. These parasites cause numerous health problems, mostly in the pelvic organs, and in rare cases, cancer. The worm larvae swim in stagnant water that has been contaminated by human urine or feces, and they enter the blood system of healthy people by piercing the skin.

The frequency of these worm infections increased rapidly after 1964, when the fast-flowing Nile was tamed by the Aswan Dam. In a relatively short time 10% of the Egyptian population was colonized by the parasite. The Ministry of Health then treated large parts of the population with injections containing antimony potassium tartrate. Until 1980 this toxic compound was considered the only effective remedy for this worm-infection. Today it is no longer used, not even in veterinary medicine.

Many years after the start of the campaign an initially unexplained epidemic of hepatitis C  was noticed in Egypt. It turned out that most of the patients with hepatitis C virus received anti-schistosomiasis injections.

Those initially infected with hepatitis C virus had higher risks to be treated in health care facilities, where the virus was then transmitted to other patients. Today (according to different estimates) 3-10% of the Egyptian population is infected with hepatitis C, and 40,000 patients die per year with the disease. Because many patients are infected, today the risk to acquire hepatitis C infection in Egyptian health facilities, even in optimal hygenic conditions, is significantly higher than in countries where hepatitis C is relatively rare.(Strickland 2006, WHO 2014)

Hepatitis C epidemic in industrialized countries

But Egypt is not an isolated case. Hepatitis C affects mostly the residents of developing and emerging countries. But even in Germany more than half a million HCV infections are recorded.

In England, in 2015 the government had to apologize for the infection of nearly 3,000 people who received infected blood products between 1970 and 1990.(Wise 2015)

In the US hepatitis C is called a “hidden epidemic” because 300,000 people were infected each year a few decades ago.(Ward 2013, Warner 2015, CDC 2015, RKI 2015, Pozzetto 2014)

Syringes and blood products are dangerous if handled improperly or if they are used although they are not necessary


Blood Bank in Kinshasa (Congo, 1990, image: Jäger)

Needles (in particular the worldwide introduction of disposable syringes and their inflationary use) contributed to the spread of viruses like HCV, HIV and others.(Jäger 1990-92) The problem of the HCV epidemic is caused by the health care system and its waste products that fall into the wrong hands. The causes of the infections mostly are: bad medicine or intravenous drug addiction. What happened in Egypt is just another example that sometimes (medical) solutions of seemingly controllable health problems can lead to much larger problems: because sometimes “the things bite back.”(Tenner 1997, Dörner 2003)

Therefore WHO’s strategy to eradicate hepatitis C, based only on treatments, cannot succeed as long as the much of the medical sectors in many poor countries remain dangerous-purely-commercial and in large parts uncontrolled. The WHO campaign certainly will enrich Gilead and some health institutions, but a reduction of the hepatitis C incidence will not take place if “bad medicine” and “drug addiction” are not targeted, preferably eradicated, or at least reduced.

Unnecessary medicine is risky and should be avoided

WHO and other international health organizations should strive to avoid unnecessary therapeutic skin piercing procedures, injections, surgery and transfusions, and (if these sometimes life saving procedures are necessary) establish strict quality control. The commerce of medical tourism and beauty-interventions (botox, piercing, tattoo) should be strictly controlled.


Hazardous needles anywhere else in Africa (image: Jäger)

And we should invest in training patients: They should be supported to reduce their demand for health-care-products and to increase their knowledge in order to distinguish “good” and “bad” medicine.



Bad Medicine in economically weak countries (such as “fake drugs”):

Why things bite back

Take a look at: Seeking the positives, by John Potterat

In an important contribution to the history of medical research, John Potterat’s new book, Seeking the Positives, recounts his involvement in research on sexually transmitted disease and HIV. Chapter 7 recounts researchers’ failure to explain how so many Africans get HIV (chapter 7 is available for download at

The AIDS epidemic has been a disaster for tens of millions of Africans. What has not been widely recognized is the damage to medical research – epidemiologists have not done what is required to show how so many Africans get HIV. In a closed-door meeting at WHO in 2003, John described HIV epidemiological research in Africa as: “First World researchers doing second class science in Third World countries.”

How will the medical research community rebuild competence after its deliberate incompetence in not explaining and thereby containing Africa’s AIDS epidemic?

John’s book offers much more than a history of HIV research failures. He and his staff at the Colorado Springs public health department reduced STD in the community. Working with researchers from CDC and elsewhere, they tested new control strategies and documented what works – demonstrating the importance of contact tracing and network analyses to understand and limit STD transmission. Research in Colorado Springs has had an impact on STD prevention programs around the world.

But this is not only history – the human costs of research failures are continuing. According to the latest UNAIDS’ estimate, 1.4 million Africans got HIV in 2014 (see: If someone could tell Africans how they are getting HIV, they might be able to protect themselves and collectively to wind down their epidemic.

I recommend the book for reading in epidemiology classes – to foster truthniks and doubters, so we will have the experts we need in future health crises. When you get the book, I recommend you start with a brief look at Appendix 3, which lists individual and STD/HIV program awards.