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Kenya: Needle Exchange Programs Could Save Lives

Despite the success of needle exchange and other harm reduction programs around the world, there people and institutions who still reject them. Even though injection drug use is said to contribute a relatively small proportion of HIV infections in Kenya, apparently some community and religious groups don’t always wish to support them. Perhaps they do not understand harm reduction?

Canada has been particularly open to needle exchange and other programs, and the view that “Drug users shouldn’t be given clean needles…it only encourages them” is a minority view now, thankfully. If needle exchange reduces transmission of HIV and hepatitis, it must be encouraged. While it may not cut injection drug use directly, it provides a means of reaching out to users in a meaningful way.

Persecuting durg users and suspected drug users, searching and questioning them, using possession of syringes as a reason for arresting them and confiscating their injecting equipment, do not ultimately result in a reduction in injecting drug use. Worse still, these actions result in users facing potentially more dangerous conditions, as well as increasing syringes and needle reuse.

Community and religious groups may be influenced by a hangover from the Bush era. Bush had a sort of ‘victorian’ influence; if he believed something, no matter how stupid, his supporters (sort of hard to believe he had them, but he must have) would believe the same thing. This is especially true of his supporters who were in receipt of US funding for their activities.

The contribution of prison populations to the HIV epidemic in Kenya is also said to be high. Even Canada, the US and Australia don’t have a needle exchange program in prisons, but it would be wise for Kenya to establish where infections are coming from among prisoners.

Aside from the copious innuendo about what men do in prisons, male to male sex is likely to be an issue in a country where it can land you in prison. Prisoners must face other risks, too. Injection drug use is one possibility, but also perhaps tattoos, body percing, blood oaths, traditional practices occur in prisons? Even sharing razors and other sharp objects carries some risk.

Kenya’s Modes of Transmission Survey is not a reliable means of estimating the combined contribution of several groups, such as injection drug users and prison populations. People who fall into these groups may face a high risk of being infected, yet few intervention programs are currently aimed at them.

Needle exchange programs would be a good start and may help to launch other programs, such as opioid replacement therapy, in the long run. But other programs addressing prisoners, men who have sex with men, sex workers and others could address between 20 and 30% of HIV transmission, which is a very substantial figure.

Too many African countries have been swayed by Western prudishness about sexual behavior in their approach to HIV. They have adopted some of the homophobia, xenophobia and other prejudices on which various wars on ‘terror’, ‘drugs’ and the like have been based. This has not led to rapid reductions in HIV transmission; so it’s time for a change.

The Only Certainty About Unsafe Healthcare and HIV is Ignorance About It

An article by Ndebele, Ruzario and Gutsire-Zinyama, who work for the Medical Research Council of Zimbabwe, claims to dismiss the ‘wait and wipe’ finding, which came from circumcision studies carried out in Africa. This refers to the finding that men who waited at least 10 minutes after coitus and used a dry cloth to wipe their genitals were far less likely to be infected with HIV than both circumcised and uncircumcised men who did not follow this procedure.

What is most extraordinary about this finding is that it has been feebly denied by some, but ignored by far more; in contrast, the findings about a rather weak association between circumcision and HIV transmission was used to push an extremely aggressive, well funded and loudly publicized program to circumcise as many African males, both teenagers and children, as possible.

One should no longer be surprised when researchers embrace the results they expected, while at the same time distancing themselves from those they don’t expect, and certainly don’t want. The ‘wait and wipe’ finding was presented at a conference some time back and was covered by US media. But it never received the attention, or subsequent funding, that mass male circumcision programs received.

So, seven years after those hyped mass male circumcision programs started, and a claimed several million men and boys circumcised under the programs, no further research appears to have been done into this interesting finding. Ndebele et al, who don’t seem aware that HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe is higher among circumcised men, rebuke several commentators, including myself, for suggesting that ‘wait and wipe’ could become an alternative strategy to circumcision.

What I said was that appropriate penile hygiene is a lot simpler, cheaper, safer and less invasive than mass male circumcision. The circumcision enthusiasts have encouraged people to associate circumcision with hygiene, but they have never shown that HIV transmission has anything to do with penile (or vaginal) hygiene. It simply suits their purposes that people seem ready to believe in such a connection.

So how can Ndebele et al question the findings about penile hygiene without also questioning those about mass male circumcision? And how can they not call for further research to be carried out? They accuse myself and other commentators of engaging in ‘pure speculation’, which we do engage in. But we are not the ones who collected the original data, some of which we now wish to selectively dismiss, and the rest of which we wish to use to aggressively promote circumcision programs.

So they proceed to engage in pure speculation of their own, and they seem to believe they are ‘dismissing’ arguments about the possible role of unsafe healthcare with a rhetorical question: they ask “With all the campaigns on safe needles that have been going on, where on earth can one still find health professionals using unsafe needles?” The answer is that syringe reuse is likely to occur in every high HIV prevalence African country.

Merely running a campaign about unsafe healthcare and syringe reuse does not reveal the extent of HIV transmission through these routes. Nor does running a campaign ensure that unsafe healthcare simply ceases to be an issue after a few years. No number of strategies, position papers, frameworks, roadmaps, multi-page reports, toolboxes or other pen-pushing exercises so beloved by the HIV industry will tell us the extent of non-sexual transmission of HIV through unsafe healthcare.

Nor will ‘putting unsafe healthcare on the agenda’ (no matter for how long) ensure that any meaningful changes will come about. Most people know little about non-sexually transmitted HIV and are constantly told that 80% of transmission or higher in Africa is a result of unsafe sex. Researchers rarely even mention HIV transmitted through unsafe healthcare, except to dismiss it, without evidence.

The authors argue that the results they wish to embrace are correct and that the results they wish to deny are merely a “coincidental finding”, and conclude that “there is no need to conduct further research” into the ‘wait and wipe’ finding.

This just about sums up the HIV industry’s approach to mass male circumcision. This has been a process of scrabbling about for data, any data which appears to support the program, and denying or ignoring any data which shows the program to be a hoax; all cobbled together by greedy (and probably somewhat pathological) ‘experts’, who will do anything to promote circumcision, ably supported by an institutionally racist HIV industry.