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Category Archives: mass male circumcision

Drugs for All Deemed More Profitable than Circumcision


Demands to roll out mass male circumcision programs, claimed to reduce HIV transmission, date back at least 20 years. Other claims about the ‘benefits’ of circumcision go back centuries. But by the time the programs had started several other interventions had been identified that have a far better claim to reduce HIV transmission.

For example, ‘test and treat’, the practice of putting everyone who tests positive for HIV on ARVs immediately, is claimed to reduce transmission to a HIV negative sexual partner by 96% or higher. (Note, 90 is something of a magic number in UNAIDSland at the moment, with their 90-90-90 strategy replacing various other magic numbers conjured up in the past.)

PrEP, the practice of giving ARVs to HIV negative people who are thought to be at risk of infection with the virus, is also claimed to reduce transmission to a HIV negative partner by 96%.

If the number of HIV positive people in the world is something around 30 million, depending on which estimates you use, and about half of them are claimed to be on ARVs already, there are still around 15 million who can benefit from ARVs. That’s worth, say, a few billion dollars.

Although a lot of those opposed to mass male circumcision don’t seem to realize this, many of those promoting circumcision are the same people who promoted behavior based programs, particularly those with an emphasis on ‘abstinence’. Those programs, although they never completely died out, were a disaster. Even the people formerly pushing them now admit that they probably had no impact on HIV transmission. But they wanted to find another source of funding to replace the vast amounts that used to go into ‘prevention’, a lot of which was spent on behavior based rubbish.

Circumcision seemed like the answer because the number of people who could be targeted for circumcision could run into hundreds of millions. Every year millions more male children would be available to keep the programs profitable.

At first the promoters claimed they were only targeting sexually active adults, but they quickly found that most of them didn’t want to be circumcised. It was much easier to recruit children and now they can turn their attention to infants.

But with test and treat, coupled with PrEP, how can the circumcision enthusiasts still claim that there is any benefit to the operation? They need to target almost the entire male population in countries where circumcision is not widely practiced. They must carry out the operation on about 75 men for every one claimed reduction in HIV transmission.

The other interventions, test and treat and PrEP, are claimed to be targeted at those most at risk. Let’s take a look at who is thought to be most at risk, and see just how many hundreds of millions of people that involves, who would need to be taking these drugs for the rest of their lives in the case of test and treat, and for as long as they are thought to be at risk for PrEP.

In western countries there are few groups who are thought to be at risk. The biggest group is men who have sex with men. The second biggest group is injecting drug users. But aside from commercial sex workers, who are given some choice in prevention options in many rich countries, there are not many others.

The picture is completely different in southern and eastern African countries, with high prevalence and/or large numbers of people infected with HIV. This article about a PrEP program in Kenya says the groups of people claimed to face the highest risk of being infected include:

  1. Discordant couples (where one partner is HIV positive and one is HIV negative)
  2. People who frequently contract sexually transmitted infections
  3. People who are said to be unable to ‘negotiate’ condom use
  4. People who frequently use post-exposure prophylaxis (a short course of ARVs for people who suspect they may have been infected, taken within 72 hours of contact)
  5. People who share injecting equipment

Out of the estimated 77,600 new infections in Kenya it is not clear how many arose among any of the listed ‘risk’ groups. High prevalence countries tend not to trace contacts, assuming that the bulk of transmissions (about 90% if you exclude infants said to have been infected by their mothers) were a result of heterosexual intercourse.

You could easily add other risks to the above list, for example (most of the following are a risk in developing countries although 7, 10 and 12 are likely to be more common in rich countries):

  1. People who have given birth in a health center/clinic
  2. People who have given birth at home, or anywhere other than in a health center/clinic
  3. People who have received birth control injections
  4. People who have had injections, blood tests, transfusions, dental care, infusions, etc
  5. People who have had operations that involved piercing the skin, major or minor (including circumcision)
  6. People who have received some forms of traditional healthcare that involved skin piercing
  7. People who use injected appearance or performance enhancers (eg botox, steroids, etc)
  8. People who get their head shaved or where skin is pierced and/or weakened by processes
  9. People who receive manicures, pedicures, etc
  10. People who have body piercings
  11. People who practice scarification and other practices
  12. People who get tattoos

Of course, with the second list, you could warn people about the risks and clean up health centers, cosmetic establishments and anywhere skin piercing occurs (the list is surprisingly long). This would seem preferable to putting almost everyone in a population on expensive drugs for many years.

But UNAIDS, CDC, WHO and other establishments object to calls to warn people about the risks they face in health and cosmetic facilities in developing countries. They warn some people from rich countries about the risks in poor countries but they refuse to warn people in poor countries.

Even concentrating on the risks listed in the Kenya article it is easy to identify many millions of people who could be said to need the $775 per annum PrEP, which is the estimated cost of the drugs alone (I don’t know what other costs there may be).

So you can see the attraction for the HIV industry. If there were only 5 million people requiring years of ARVs, for some, a lifetime of ARVs, that’s several billion dollars for Kenya alone. There are countries with higher prevalence and others with higher numbers of people infected than Kenya.

With only a few billion dollars for mass male circumcision, with its 1.3% absolute risk reduction, or even the claimed 60% relative risk reduction, drugs for the sick and the well seems like a far more lucrative strategy. Even if the benefits realized for mass male circumcision far exceed those unlikely claims, they can’t come close to the claimed benefits of test and treat and those of PrEP.

One problem is that you can’t roll out PrEP for many of the groups claimed to benefit. For example, in discordant couples the positive partner should already be receiving ARVs. People who share injecting equipment could be better served by a clean syringe and needle program. There may be other examples, where overlapping PrEP and test and treat might raise eyebrows among the more scrupulous in the industry.

And it would be perverse to give PrEP to people while they still attend clinics and other places where skin piercing procedures take place without warning them about the risks and also ensuring that those places start to abide by strict infection control regulations that people in rich countries (and rich people in poor countries) enjoy.

If PrEP and test and treat strategies are as wonderful as we are told, let’s hope they do as well in the field as they did in trials. But let’s also get rid of these silly mass male circumcision programs. We no longer have to pretend that they will reduce HIV transmission, or even pretend that that’s why they were rolled out in the first place. Worse still, the profits are orders of magnitude lower than the drug based strategies.

Depo Provera and Circumcision: Violence Against Women Masquerading as Research


Although there are plenty of instances of institutionally sanctioned violence against women, this blog post is about two very prominent instances: mass male circumcision programs [*Greg Boyle, cited below; one of the most up to date publications on the subject, which cites many of the seminal works] and the aggressive promotion of the dangerous injectible contraceptive, Depo Provera (DMPA).

Why are mass male circumcision (MMC) programs instances of violence against women? Well, three trials of MMC were carried out to show that it reduced female to male transmission of HIV. They were show trials, with the entire process monitored to ensure that it gave the results that the researchers wanted. These trials have been cited countless times by popular and academic publications.

Less frequently cited was a single trial of MMC that was intended to show that it reduced male to female transmission of HIV. None of these four trials were independent of each other and the female to male trials produced suspiciously similar results, despite taking place in different countries, with ostensibly different teams. But the single male to female trial showed the opposite to what the researchers wanted: circumcision increased HIV transmission, considerably.

During all four of the trials, male participants were not required to inform their partner if they were found to be HIV positive, or if they became infected during the trial. If there had been any ethical oversight, those refusing to inform their partner would have been excluded from the trial. This is what would have happened in western countries, including the one that funded the research, the US.

Given that many women and men believe that circumcision protects a man from HIV, these MMC programs are giving HIV positive men the means to have possibly unprotected sex with HIV negative women. Many women and men were infected with HIV during the four show trials and almost all of those infections could have been avoided. How participants became infected during the trials has never been investigated, which is not only unethical, but also renders the trials useless.

Despite Depo Provera use substantially increasing the risk of HIV positive women infecting their sexual partners, and the risk of HIV positive men infecting women using the deadly contraceptive, this is the favored contraceptive method for many of the biggest NGOs (many of the biggest NGOs are engaged in population control of some kind). Therefore, its use is far more common in poor countries (especially among sex workers) and among non-white populations in rich countries.

These two instances of violence against women (and men) are funded by the likes of CDC, UNAIDS and the Gates Foundation. Many research papers extolling the virtues of MMC and Depo Provera are paid for by such institutions, copiously cited by them in publications, and constantly wheeled out as examples of successful global health programs. Yet, they are both responsible for countless numbers of avoidable HIV infections.

There is currently a lot of institutional maundering about violence against women and certain instances of it, but some of these same institutions are taking part in the perpetration of it; they are funding it, making money and careers out of it, promoting themselves and their activities on the back of what is entirely unethical. Why do Institutional Review Boards, peer reviewers and academics, donors and others seem happy to ignore these travesties? Who is it that decides that this is all OK, when it clearly is not?

Why are these not considered to be unethical: aggressively promoting the use of a dangerous medication, and an invasive operation that will neither protect men nor women? Is it because those promoting them are making a lot of money out of them, because the victims are mostly poor, non-white people, because the research and programs take place in poor countries, because ethics is nice in principle but too expensive in practice…? Or all of the above and more?

* Boyle, G. J. (2013). Critique of African RCTs into male circumcision and HIV sexual transmission. In G. C. Denniston et al. (Eds.), Genital cutting: Protecting children from medical, cultural, and religious infringements. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer Science+Business Media doi: 10.1007/978-94-007-6407-1_15

South Africa – Never Mind HIV, We’ve Got Penis Transplants


One ebola case, out of tens of thousands identified over nearly forty years, may have been sexually transmitted; the evidence is slim, but CDC and others really want this one case to be used to stress that people should be made aware of this highly remote possibility (if it is even remotely possible).

Strong evidence that a significant proportion of transmissions of ebola is a result of unsafe healthcare is quietly ignored; CDC and others don’t wish to warn people that the healthcare systems expected to deal with such outbreaks are far too weak to keep people alive, and are likely to be part of the problem in the cases of ebola and HIV.

South Africa has transplanted one penis on to a man who lost his through a botched circumcision. The US government is ploughing a few billion dollars into circumcising tens of millions of African adults (and an unknown number of children), so they will not be in a hurry to warn people about the hundreds of botched circumcisions reported every year (nor the uncounted thousands that remain unreported).

The English Guardian has a lengthy article about this single penis transplant, and has had a few, equally salacious articles, about botched circumcisions that occur in traditional, non-sterile settings. That same smug, self-satisfied newspaper has had next to nothing to say about appalling conditions in healthcare facilities in places where HIV prevalence is very high, or about the possible role of unsafe healthcare in transmitting HIV, hepatitis C and B, ebola, TB and various other diseases.

The craze for circumcising African men is based on the view that HIV is almost always ‘spread’ by men, through ‘unsafe’ sex, which almost every ‘African’ engages in, almost all the time (a view based entirely on prejudice). The press is completely unmoved by the fact that circumcision of men may increase HIV transmission from males to females, considerably.

The media goes crazy about the ‘possibly sexually transmitted’ ebola case, even exaggerating it into a dead certainty that it was sexually transmitted; and they are happy to promote the view that Africans engage in types and levels of sexual behavior that should be curbed by various (failed) measures, paid for by donor money. But this is just a continuation of what various colonizers began.

The racism behind the view that HIV is almost always transmitted through heterosexual contact in (some) African countries, but no non-African countries, has always remained unremarked by the press. The prejudice behind singling out uncircumcised African men and HIV positive women for intense vilification is rarely mentioned.

The fact that about 7% of HIV positive women in South Africa, the country with the largest HIV positive population in the world, report being sterilized forcibly, receives occasional mention. But readers seem to prefer articles about penis transplants and one possibly sexually transmitted case of ebola, it appears.

The Daily Maverick has an article about what the author dubs the ‘new denialism’; the health services in South Africa are failing, they are even failing HIV positive people, despite the huge amounts of money that the country is said to have received.

The health services are unable to cope with any illnesses and throwing money at HIV will not result in reasonable numbers of well trained and equipped staff, adequate supplies and, most of all, levels of cleanliness and hygiene that eliminate the possibility that many patients will end up being infected with something in hospital that is far worse than what they were admitted with.

There is nothing new about this denialism, but it needs to be recharacterized; health services are not just inadequate, they are dangerous. Aidsmap.com are certainly not alone in bemoaning the fact that many women in South Africa are infected with HIV relatively late in their pregnancy, sometimes after giving birth, even many months after.

Nor are Aidsmap alone in failing to consider the possibility that some of those women, perhaps most of those women, were infected with HIV through unsafe healthcare, reused syringes, needles, various types of equipment and various processes that require a far better level of hygiene than will be found in extremely high prevalence provinces, such as KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga.

The pharmaceutical industry does very well out of HIV and several other diseases that have hit the headlines in the mainstream press, and are deemed worthy of enormous funding. Many NGOs have been built by HIV money and will only thrive and prosper as long as a few diseases are considered worthy of massive funding.

The press loves a story about a penis transplant in a country too poor to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths every year, of women giving birth, babies, children and adults with easily treated and prevented diseases. Appalling conditions in health services in most African countries does not merit the attention of the press, they are far too commonplace. If a story from ‘Africa’ has even the remotest connection with sex, publish it; if not, forget it.

We do them in Black for 14.99


I was recently sent an article which stated that “Novel strategies are needed to increase the uptake of voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) in sub-Saharan Africa and enhance the effectiveness of male circumcision as an HIV prevention strategy.”

The operation is provided free of charge. But this ‘intervention’ randomized participants into three groups, the first receiving about $2.50 in food vouchers, the second receiving about $8.75 and the third about $15, conditional on getting circumcised within two months. There was also a control group of men who received no compensation.

You may wonder why an operation said to be so highly beneficial requires a financial incentive; your wonder may (or may not) be assuaged by the assurance that some men face certain “economic barriers to VMMC and behavioral factors such as present-biased decision making”.

‘Present-biased’ suggesting that people will not spend money now on something that promises a future benefit only. However, perhaps these men don’t see any benefit; perhaps they use condoms, have only one, HIV negative, sexual partner, don’t have sex at all, live in a place where HIV prevalence is extremely low (there are many in Africa, far more than places where prevalence is high), etc. It’s also unclear what proportion of HIV is transmitted through heterosexual sex, which is the only mode of transmission circumcision enthusiasts even claim to reduce.

So those providing the operation propose ‘compensating’ each man for some of the costs involved in having the operation, possibly including the opportunity costs of missing work for a few days. You could argue that there will be no net financial benefit, and that this is nothing like bribing people to conform to a practice that some western donors from rich countries see as beneficial, but that the majority of people, even in rich countries, consider useless, perhaps even harmful.

The claimed future ‘benefit’ comes to this: one person out of every one hundred or more men who are circumcised (we don’t know the number because mass male circumcision trials have been biased towards showing the effectiveness of the operation) may be ‘protected’ from infection with HIV; ‘protected’ if it really is the circumcision that protects the man; no causal protective mechanism has ever been convincingly demonstrated.

The upshot of the trial will not surprise anyone. Hardly any of those in the control group went on to avail of their free circumcision. Slightly more of the men receiving $2.50 did so. The same goes for those receiving $8.50 and those receiving $15. But the overall impact was “a modest increase in the prevalence of circumcision after 2 months”.

The several hundred thousand Kenyans claimed to have already agreed to be circumcised under these mass male circumcision programs (many of whom would have been circumcised anyway in accordance with tribal practice), and the millions claimed to have been circumcised under similar programs in other African countries, may be disappointed that they will not receive anything at all to reflect “a portion of transportation costs and lost wages associated with getting circumcised”.

Depending on whose figures you use, circumcisions in African countries are claimed to cost as little as $60. Other figures suggest that the cost is at least twice that, and NGOs profiting from these programs would have an interest in claiming costs as high as possible. All the figures are puny compared to what the operation would cost in a rich country. But with an estimated 22 million men said to be currently eligible in Africa, and several tens of millions more boys not counted in the original estimate, just how much money is available?

Much of the literature about mass male circumcision is about notional economic benefits and quite superficial issues, such as assumed cleanliness and hygiene (for which there is no evidence), aesthetic aspects, improved sexual experience, and the like. Very little is about ethics, politics or, god forbid, human rights.

The ‘benefits’ of circumcision are easy enough to exaggerate and any disbenefits can be discounted because the ‘beneficiaries’ are male Africans, whose ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior is said to be responsible for the bulk of HIV transmissions.

To those promoting mass male circumcision, the useless piece of flesh on the end of a penis is a man, an African man, at that. Whereas the foreskin represents a vast funding opportunity and permits unbridled expression of a pathological belief in the multiple virtues of genital mutilation. The right to bodily integrity has, apparently, been suspended.

Uganda’s HIV Prevention and Control Act May Fall Foul of Itself


The Ugandan HIV and AIDS Prevention and Control Act, 2014, has been rightly criticized for potentially criminalizing certain kinds of HIV transmission and for compelling pregnant women (and their partners) to be tested for HIV.

It is felt that the law will result in people avoiding testing in order that they cannot be accused of attempted or intentional transmission of the virus. However, pregnant women who are not tested are unlikely to receive prevention of mother to transmission treatment or treatment for their own infection.

But there are other flaws in the act, which appears to have been put together in a hurry and without any proof reading. For a start, it seems to be assumed that HIV is almost always transmitted through sexual intercourse, aside from transmission from mother to child.

In Uganda, this is ridiculous. Children with HIV negative mothers were found to be HIV positive in three separate published studies, in the 80s, the 90s and the 2000s. More recently, several men taking part in the Rakai circumcision trial were infected even though they did not have sexual intercourse, and several more were infected despite always using condoms. (There are links to all the studies on the Don’t Get Stuck With HIV site.)

The act makes no explicit mention of non-sexual transmission through healthcare, cosmetic and/or traditional skin-piercing practices, though tattooing and a handful of other practices are mentioned. But there is no mention of circumcision (or genital mutilation), male or female, whether carried out in medical or traditional settings.

The above incidents raise questions about the act’s definition of ‘informed consent’, which requires that people be given “adequate information including risks and benefits of and alternatives to the proposed intervention”. Were mothers informed about all of  the risks that their infants faced? Were they even made aware of risks to themselves, through unsafe healthcare?

Were the men in the Rakai trial informed about unsafe healthcare risks? Trials should not endanger the health of those taking part, and participants should be adequately informed about the risks. But where people appear to have been infected with HIV as a result of taking part in the trials, this possibility has not even been investigated.

The act does not include transmission as a result of infection control procedures not being followed (or not being implemented). Nor does it include careless transmission, as a result of not following (or implementing) procedures, not training personnel adequately, not providing health facilities with the equipment and supplies needed, etc. The Ugandan state itself has an obligation to prevent and control HIV transmission, according to the act.

Curiously, the act states that there will be no conviction if transmission is through sexual intercourse but protective measures were used (also if the victim knew the accused was infected and accepted the risk). Protective measures probably include condoms, but do they also include antiretroviral treatment? Vast claims are made about reductions in HIV transmission when the infected party is on treatment. Yet people have been convicted of intentional transmission in countries other than Uganda; being in antiretroviral treatment didn’t always protect them from conviction.

Part one of section 45 reads: “All statements or information regarding the cure, prevention and control of HIV infection shall be subjected to scientific verification”; part three reads: “A person who makes, causes to be made or publishes any misleading statements or information regarding cure, prevention or control of HIV contrary to this section commits an offence and shall be liable on conviction…”.

So it’s not just pregnant mothers and other parties who may fall foul of the HIV Prevention Act. Those who wrote the act may have contravened it themselves in a number of ways. Even those running drug and other health related trials, health practitioners and traditional and cosmetic practitioners may also risk contravening the act.

Revised History of HIV in Kenya – Part V – UNAIDS’ Rorschach Hypothesis


As I said in earlier posts, HIV arrived in Kenya and remained unnoticed until the 1980s. It is said to have spread rapidly throughout the 80s, especially in certain places (such as Nairobi, Mombasa, Nyanza province and perhaps a few others), but also to have remained low in other places (such as the North and Northeast). The rate of new infections, incidence, peaked in the early to mid 1990s and declined thereafter. So prevalence peaked in the late 90s or early 2000s, with high death rates, which may have peaked in the mid 2000s. The epidemic has a long early years tail (1950s-1980s), a humped back, possibly very humped, and a longish neck. Perhaps the curve resembles an outline of a diplodocus, complete with a little bump where the head should be, but just a small head.

With prevalence peaking at a little over 10%, but only for two or three years, the period of high transmission or incidence would have been six or seven years previously (going backwards again, for a moment). That suggests something catastrophic in the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s that was responsible for much of this rapid transmission. Whatever that something was, it didn’t result in rapid spread of HIV before the 1980s, and it ceased in the 1990s. It also ceased to result in rapid spread of HIV after a brief few years. Does that sound like sexual behavior to you? It does to the HIV industry, who have been trying to redescribe similar phenomena in all high HIV prevalence African countries.

So the diplodocus is not the only kind of epidemic curve; there are several dinosaur-like curves that you can spot using UNAIDS data. Many of them look very similar, but there are some whose backs rise two or three times higher than any of those found in East Africa, for example Zimbabwe. A few more countries show an epidemic that exploded in the 1990s but haven’t dropped yet, such as Swaziland and Lesotho. The Dinosaur is also a good metaphor for some of the institutions and international NGOs that have systematically resisted one of the best arguments for universal primary healthcare ever (HIV, that is), and continue to resist it to this day. HIV is almost all a matter of individual sexual behavior, they say.

But I did mention being drawn to spatial and temporal factors, rather than ‘populations’. Even in my first attempt at characterizing Kenya’s epidemic it was clear that there wasn’t really a ‘national’ epidemic. Instead, there were places where HIV prevalence was exceptionally high, and even more places where HIV prevalence was low. Over time, there were places, high and low prevalence, where the curves looked nothing like dinosaurs. They were more like pancakes in low prevalence areas, sometimes with a small piece of fruit under them, and Mexican hats in high prevalence areas. Could this data really describe sexual behavior over time? I was skeptical, not believing that almost all HIV could be sexually transmitted, as the HIV industry was claiming.

Then it was confirmed to me that HIV is frequently transmitted through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices, such as reused syringes and other equipment and practices in all three scenarios, with the second and third involving razors and other sharp objects that are used to pierce the skin, often the same ones over and over again, without any attempt at sterilization. Reasonable people were arguing that various kinds of bloodborne transmission were the only phenomena that could explain the Mexican hats. That accorded well with what I could glean from the literature. It just doesn’t accord with what the HIV industry insists: we know it’s all about sex, they insist, even when you present instances where it couldn’t possibly be.

I can give you about 50 reasons why I don’t believe HIV is entirely a matter of sexual behavior without even putting much thought into it (I’ve already written the list). But here are 10, with supporting links, so you can follow them up if you are interested. I’ll supply more in Part VI, perhaps even the rest, I’m not sure yet. Many of the reasons I give overlap with the factors involved in HIV transmission that I listed in Part IV, so if you wondered about any of them, you’ll probably be able to match the two lists, eventually. I may even merge them some time, but not now.

1 Prevalence is often higher among rich people. Consult the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) for most African countries with serious HIV epidemics and you’ll find this. There is a table of HIV prevalence by wealth quintile that I drew up and it is available on a linked blog post I wrote recently.

2 Prevalence is often higher among better educated people. Again, the DHS gives data on this for all high HIV prevalence countries, but here’s a graph with some of the data in a table.

Education focus countries

3 High prevalence often clusters around transport infrastructure. Here’s a wonderful map of Africa where you can see why there are the several HIV regions I mentioned in an earlier part. But notice that ‘spatial accessibility’ or ‘friction’ that they mention do not explain all the regions. West Africa has a less serious epidemic than both East and southern Africa, yet there is good transport infrastructure there.

4 High prevalence often clusters around big employers, such as mines, plantations, etc. But miners and those employed in large numbers face other threats, such as employer supplied healthcare, public health programs, tests, checkups, STI programs and whatever else. Some may face additional sexual risks when they spend 11 months of the year in an all male hostel, but anyone who thinks that this sub-human treatment only impacts on victims’ sexual behavior needs psychiatric assessment.

5 Prevalence is usually higher in urban areas (where non-sexual risks are also higher). But there are multiple differences between urban and rural areas, only some of which relate to sexual behavior. The HIV industry loves going on about ‘sexual networks’, and not just in African countries. But what about the appalling conditions most urban dwelling people experience when they are born in a city or when they move to one? Slums are dangerous places, where children die of water borne diseases that cost a few cents to cure because what they need is clean water, to ensure they don’t get any of a multitude of waterborne diseases. Babies and children die of pneumonia and various respiratory problems, again, easily avoided and treated. But even if you pump a child full of available vaccines and send them back to the same environment, many of them will just die of something else. Adults die of all kinds of things as well, often as a result of the terrible living conditions. Many die or are disabled by road traffic accidents and other kinds of serious injury. Slums, where about 75-80% of Kenya’s urban dwellers live, are dangerous. Does anyone who has thought about it really think the only risks they face are sexual?

6 Prevalence is usually lower in rural areas (where non-sexual risks are also lower; have a look at any DHS). This is not to say that people don’t face hazards. They also don’t receive the benefits of public health programs that are available to people in the cities. Of course, this can protect them from healthcare associated HIV and other diseases but many vaccines work well, a lot of common diseases can be prevented or cured. However, when it comes to HIV, rural dwellers seem to be a lot better off, and inaccessibility of healthcare facilities may have protected them, at least in the recent past. My guess is that while some may be involved in ‘sexual networks’, just as people all over the world are, these do not explain everything.

7 HIV prevalence is not particularly closely related to ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior. For example, DHS figures for sexual behavior among young people in Zimbabwe show how tenuous the connection is. Even the authors were unable to interpret them. But a careful look at sexual behavior figures for many countries show that the numbers engaging in these behaviors tend to be a lot smaller than the numbers not engaging in them. These levels of ‘unsafe’ sexual behavior would not be able to explain the Mexican hat graphs in Nyanza and in Kenya’s major cities.

8 Prevalence is often lower among those who never use condoms. As the linked article shows, condom use is often associated with higher rates of transmission than non use. The authors try to imagine arguments to show why condoms look like they are failing more often than not, but they don’t come up with anything convincing. The figures in the article have been superseded and there’s a more up to date table in a blog a wrote a short time ago. My guess is that condom use is higher among urban dwelling, better educated, wealthier, employed people, and that’s why you get these same patterns for condom use in so many countries. Again, this strongly suggests that HIV is not purely a matter of sexual behavior.

9 HIV prevalence is low in areas where ‘intergenerational’ marriage and sex, that is, between people of very different ages, are more common. I’m linking to a blog post I wrote recently, no point in repeating the whole thing again. The data is from DHS for various countries.

10 HIV prevalence is low in areas where ‘traditional’ practices are more common, such as traditional medicine. These tend to be more common in rural and isolated areas. A possible exception to this is genital mutilation. There are two kinds, only one of which is ‘traditional’. The first kind takes place in a health facility, so that’s usually male genital mutilation. The second kind does not take place in a health facility and includes male and female genital mutilation. It’s hard to say which is more likely to transmit HIV. If mass male circumcision was being carried out in a health facility where infection control procedures were not followed properly, not an uncommon occurrence, then healthcare associated transmission could be very likely, and would be serious; some practitioners are carrying out twenty operations a day, apparently. Traditional circumcision, which has its own hazards, is carried out in entirely unsterile conditions and adverse events are common. But it may be less likely that a HIV positive person is being circumcised along with other initiates. Prevalence should be low among young uncircumcised males. Even if they engage in sex before the wound has healed, those with whom they have sex should also be less likely to be infected. But whether done in a clinic or in a field, genital mutilation is risky. Female genital mutilation generally takes place in unsterile conditions and the risks of some forms may be higher than those faced by males. But female genital mutilation is also more likely to take place in rural areas, where HIV prevalence is lower. It is said that almost 100% of Ethnic Somalis in Kenya’s Northeastern province, both male and female, are genitally mutilated, but HIV prevalence is very low.

HIV probably did very little for years in Kenya. But next to nothing for years is the way to go from being a species jump that should never have survived to being a pandemic. Perhaps a clearer history of how it survived and spread, to explode in the late 80s or early 90s, will tell us more about what is still driving transmission, in Kenya and elsewhere. But there are already many reasons for believing that HIV is not only transmitted through sex. One would want to be seriously disturbed to interpret every factor involved as evidence of sexual behavior.

South Africa: Don’t Panic About Ebola, We Have Extremely Effective Surveillance Systems


Some may beg to differ with the health minister. While TB is very different from ebola, South Africans will (I hope) recall hearing about an epidemic of multidrug-resistant (MDR) and extensively drug resistant (XDR) TB being transmitted in health facilities in South Africa and surrounding countries, perhaps since the early 2000s. Scaremongering about infectious disease outbreaks doesn’t do anyone any good, but nor does underestimating the ease with which diseases can spread, within a country and internationally.

A three decade HIV pandemic has shown us that surveillance systems on their own are not enough. The XDR/MDR epidemic is very closely connected with the HIV epidemic in South Africa and has been attributed to poor infection control. Countries that wish to control disease spread need strong health systems. However, the reaction to HIV has not been a sustained strengthening of health systems as a whole, but rather a vertical, cherry-picking approach. The result is that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have crumbling health systems, massive shortages in skilled health personnel, inadequate equipment and unreliable vital supplies.

Conditions are so dangerous that UNAIDS advises UN personnel not to use health facilities in developing countries, although the institution seems to believe that the same facilities are fine for Africans. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have relatively low HIV prevalence, whereas the number of HIV positive people in Nigeria could be the second highest in the world; South Africa is home to the highest population of HIV positive people. This has only weakened health systems further.

Nor is there any need to single out South Africa, Nigeria or the three countries that have the worst ebola outbreaks so far. There are Service Provision Assessments and other reports for many African countries showing that basic supplies such as gloves, soap and water, drugs, even injecting and other equipment, are frequently lacking. There are also scores of articles alluding to dangerous conditions, some published many years ago.

The South African health minister, and health ministers in all African countries, would be better off using outbreaks of ebola, MDR and XDR TB, hepatitis and HIV as arguments for investing in health systems that can provide safe health services for everyone, rather than for the rich alone, or for those suffering from headline grabbing diseases. Nosocomial TB in South Africa is thought to have started more than ten years ago, and affects many health facilities, in several countries. Therefore, there have been numerous outbreaks over that period, not just a few isolated instances.

Many of the people who have died of ebola are health professionals and others who are probably more aware of the risks they face than their patients are. Claiming that health systems are fine and that they are able to cope is a betrayal of the work their health professionals are doing. Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi should tell the WHO and other international institutions something that is an open secret about healthcare safety in African countries – it is in very urgent need of attention.

Nigeria, Unsafe Healthcare and Bloodborne Virus Epidemics


An article in a Nigerian newspaper highlights the very serious hepatitis epidemic there, with an estimated 20 million people, about 12% of the population, infected with either hepatitis B (HBV) or C (HCV). Although one of the ways HBV can be transmitted, and the way HCV is usually transmitted, is through blood, it is less common to find explanations of why or how people come into contact with someone else’s blood, or how to avoid this.

The Don’t Get Stuck With HIV site gives details of numerous ways you can come into contact with someone else’s blood through healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices. Healthcare practices include antenatal care, birth control injections and implants, transfusions, child delivery, dental care, donating blood, injections for curative and preventive reasons, catheters, male circumcision and others.

Cosmetic practices include manicures and pedicures, shaving, tattooing, body piercing, use of Botox and other products, performance enhancing drugs and perhaps colonic irrigation. Traditional practices include male and female genital cutting (FGM and MGM), traditional medicine, scarification and various other skin-piercing practices.

The Don’t Get Stuck with HIV site also lists some of the steps you can take to protect yourself from exposure to HIV, HBV, HCV or other bloodborne pathogens, even ebola. The site also links to articles and sources of data about unsafe healthcare, unexplained HIV infections and other indications that risks for bloodborne transmission of various viruses are not always so widely recognized.

As a result, people often don’t know there is a risk and they don’t know how to protect themselves. This is as true of HIV in high prevalence countries with inadequate health services, HBV and HCV in countries where those viruses are common, and even ebola or other haemorrhagic viruses, when such an outbreak occurs. Indeed, ebola epidemics have only occurred in countries where healthcare is known to be unsafe, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and most recently Nigeria.

Two lengthy reports on healthcare safety in Nigeria have been published in the last few years. The second was a survey using the WHO’s ‘Tool C’, also used for the survey from Philippines mentioned in a recent blog. Bearing in mind the warnings we are currently hearing about ebola, and the warnings we should have been hearing about HIV and hepatitis:

Of the health facilities observed, only 23 (28.8 percent) had soap and running water for cleansing hands, and no facility had alcohol-based hand rub available.

Overall, fewer than half of all injections observed were prepared on a clean surface…

They found that injection providers only washed their hands in 13 percent of cases; none used an alcohol-based hand rub…

Fewer than half of the providers were seen to use water or a clean wet swab to clean the skin before vaccination, therapeutic, and family planning injections…

For vaccination, in 79.7 percent of cases, auto-disable syringes were used.

However, for dental procedures, there were two observations where providers used sterilizable syringes, and of these two, one of them also used a sterilizable needle…

18.7 percent had a needle left in the diaphragm of a multi-dose vial.

When glass ampoules were used during vaccination, the providers used a clean barrier in 1 of the 11 vaccination injections observed. Providers used a clean barrier in the only such dental injection observed, 3 of 11 family planning injections, and 4 of 43 therapeutic injections observed (9.3 percent).

Providers generally used standard disposable needles and syringes (70 percent) for phlebotomy procedures, and lancets for procedures requiring lancing (78.6 percent). Providers were rarely seen to use safety devices such as auto-disable and retractable syringes…

62.6 percent of procedures were prepared on a clean, dedicated table or tray where contamination of the equipment with blood, body fluids, or dirty swabs was unlikely (in 42 out of 67 hospitals and 20 out of 32 lower-level facilities).

[for blood draws and intravenous procedures] Overall, providers washed their hands with soap and running water in only 2 of the 99 observations.

Data collectors observed that patients shared a bed or stretcher with another patient in 17.6 percent of IV infusions. This was also the case for 4.5 percent of IV injection patients.

Data collectors observed that in 69.3 percent of cases, the provider used a clean gauze pad and gently applied pressure to the puncture site to stop bleeding after the procedure.

Only 10.5 percent of providers cleaned their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub following the observed procedures. In the 35 cases in which there was blood or body fluid contamination in the work area, the area was cleaned with disinfectant in 20 percent of observations (see Table 14).

During interviews, five percent of providers (11 out of 217) reported that they used sterilizable needles in injections, phlebotomies, IV injections, or infusions. Of the 5 out of 187 supervisors who reported use of sterilizable syringes and needles, three said that fuel was always available to run the sterilizer, while the remaining two reported that fuel had been unavailable for less than one month at some point.

Half of the 80 health facilities had infectious waste (non-sharps) outside of an appropriate container.”

This list includes only some of the risks to patients. There is also a section on risks to the provider, risks to other health staff, such as waste handlers, and risks to the community. Nigeria is unlikely to have the worst health facility conditions in Africa and there are many areas of healthcare safety requiring urgent attention.

When news reports about ebola constantly emphasize things like eating bushmeat and ‘traditional’ practices at funerals, think of the kind of conditions that can be found in Nigerian hospitals even when healthcare personnel are aware that an inspection is taking place. When reports about hepatitis concentrate on intravenous drug use and other illicit practices, and when reports about HIV seem to be almost entirely about sexual behavior, conditions in health and cosmetic facilities and contexts where traditional practices take place must also be relevant.

Seek and you shall Find: Evidence in Support of HIV Drug Sustainability


A recent piece of research claims to find that mass male circumcision programs do not result in ‘risk compensation’, the idea that some HIV interventions can result in an increase in ‘risky’ behavior, such as sex without condoms. Happily for those aggressively promoting mass male circumcision, they say they found no evidence of risk behavior. Whether they found evidence that it doesn’t occur, rather than failing to find evidence that it does occur, is another matter.

Similar research into the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), the use of HIV drugs before some kind of exposure to HIV, such as through sexual intercourse with a HIV positive person, also found no evidence of ‘risk compensation’, although this research was carried out in the US; PrEP is more of a rich person’s intervention at the moment.

And a meta-analysis of “every study that has looked at the sexual behaviour of people after starting HIV treatment” has found no evidence of ‘risk compensation’. Most of the studies took place in African countries. These results must have found a welcoming audience at the HIV industry’s annual back-slapping event that has just finished in Melbourne.

But these findings may suggest something very significant that the researchers have not mentioned: perhaps HIV positive people are nowhere near as promiscuous, careless and uncaring as they are depicted as being by the HIV industry thus far.

It is not known what proportion of HIV transmission is a result of sexual intercourse and what proportion is a result of other modes of transmission, such as exposure to contaminated medical instruments, unsafe cosmetic or traditional practices.

The assumption that most transmission is a result of sex is a prejudice, rather than an empirical finding. The assumption that transmission through various non-sexual routes is low is a result of not looking for evidence that would demonstrate such transmission and ignoring any evidence that comes to light, which it usually does inadvertently.

Those promoting mass male circumcision and other revenue streams do seem to be inordinately blessed when it comes to finding ‘evidence’ that the intervention is safe, acceptable, effective and worthy of the hundreds of millions that has been spent, and the billions that has been earmarked for moving from adult and child circumcision to include infant circumcision, the latter being a far more sustainable proposition.

Now that so much money can be made from various mass HIV drug administration strategies, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis, early treatment, treatment as prevention, treating HIV positive pregnant women for life (as opposed to a shorter course of treatment), etc, it seems unlikely that any of the big funders will wish to put much money into finding out how people in high prevalence countries are infected in the first place, and aiming to prevent such infections from occurring.

Of course, like infant circumcision, allowing a substantial number of people to continue to be infected with HIV is far more sustainable than aiming for the industry’s claimed goal of virtually eliminating HIV by 2030. A steady stream of new infections from the worst epidemics should keep the industry afloat for at least a few more decades, and perhaps even ensure their survival for the rest of the century.

Why ‘Reducing HIV Transmission’ Must Never be an Excuse for Genital Mutilation


The English Guardian has put together figures for female genital mutilation (FGM) and the top ten are Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Mali, Sudan, Eritrea, Gambia and Burkina Faso. But the top ten for HIV that I have been looking at recently are Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi and Uganda. The table below shows just how dramatic the non-correlation is.

FGM and HIV

The English Guardian is calling for an end to FGM, of course, not for it to be used to reduce HIV transmission. But a far less dramatic non-correlation has been used to justify three randomized controlled trials of mass male circumcision in African countries. The results of these trials have been used to justify a continuation of mass male circumcision, supposedly to reduce HIV transmission, involving tens, even hundreds of millions of men, boys and infants, and several billions of dollars. While HIV prevalence is lower among uncircumcised men than circumcised men in some countries, it is lower among uncircumcised men in others, while in several more countries circumcision status makes no difference. The correlation coefficient is roughly zero.

Results of further research into mass male circumcision is being presented to 16,000 attendees at the Melbourne HIV conference this week, research carried out on people who are not aware that they are guinea pigs for the current obsession with the operation. Because, as the figures show, we have no idea why circumcision sometimes appears to ‘protect’ against HIV and why it sometimes appears not to. Nor do we have any idea what proportion of HIV is transmitted through sexual contact and what proportion is transmitted through non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices.

Similarly, we have no idea why HIV prevalence is so high in some African countries but so low in others. The fact that HIV prevalence is very low in countries that practice FGM is not seen as justification for carrying out trials of the operation on millions of people and presenting the results at an international HIV conference (such trials would probably be carried in secret, anyhow). In fact, FGM status is quite rightly seen as irrelevant to HIV transmission, and that even if it is somehow relevant, carrying out trials into the operation as a HIV intervention would be entirely unethical.

International health and development institutions, the UN, the mainstream media, political and religious leaders all around the world, and many others, condemn FGM and would not consider it as a means of reducing HIV transmission. They would not even condone carrying out field trials into any kind of FGM, not even the less damaging kinds of FGM, the kind that does no permanent damage, because it is not ethically justifiable to carry out such an operation for no medical reason on infants, children, or even unconsenting adults.

But the research carried out by the people slapping each other on the back in Melbourne, presumably at some considerable cost, were financed by the likes of the Gates Foundation (which also funds the English Guardian’s Development section, where the FGM article appears), FHI 360, Engender-Health and University of Illinois at Chicago. Several (if not all) of these institutions have their origins in a ‘population control’ theory of development, the belief that the population of developing countries is too high, and lowering birth rates will increase development and reduce poverty; less polite people would call this ‘eugenics’.

I wonder if these parties have some information about, or beliefs about, mass male circumcision having some negative influence on fertility. Because, if they were to believe the same thing about FGM, would they also promote it with the same energy and persistence (and funding, and institutional backing)? What about other means of reducing fertility, such as Depo Provera, which has been associated with higher rates of HIV transmission? Gates and other ‘population control’ organizations certainly do promote that.

So promoting your favorite ‘public health’ intervention as a means of reducing HIV when the evidence is slim is bad enough. But this intervention involves something that is ethically unjustifiable unless it is carried out for medical reasons. So these various parties went a step further: they carried out, and continue to carry out, ‘trials’ of this operation on millions of people. The excuse is that it ‘reduces HIV transmission’. But using that kind of evidence, so does FGM.

Genital mutilation without consent is not ethically justifiable; the fact that HIV prevalence is lower in countries where genital mutilation is common does not justify mass male circumcision programs, where millions of people are unwitting guinea pigs to this neoeugenicist experiment. Those promoting mass male circumcision programs, funding them or working on them are involved in a crime of inestimable proportions, and must be stopped.