Research in Mozambique, Swaziland and Kenya has shown that a substantial proportion of HIV positive infants have HIV negative mothers. These infants are likely to have been infected through unsafe healthcare, perhaps reused syringes, needles or other equipment, lack of adherence to infection control procedures, etc.
Amnesty International has launched a campaign to gather information from the public about maternal deaths in Mpumalanga, South Africa. In particular, they are interested in HIV testing, informed consent and whether consent is given voluntarily.
But what kind of ‘information’ are Amnesty collecting? The South African Medical Association’s Ethical and Human Rights Guidelines on HIV and AIDS makes no mention of non-sexual transmission of HIV whatsoever. Is information about the likely source of an infant’s infection not considered to be a vital part of giving informed consent?
Is information about how a mother (or anyone else) may have been infected with HIV not also vital? I would suggest that this information needs to be a standard element in pre- and post-test counselling for everyone, but particularly where the spouse is not HIV positive or where a HIV positive person has no identifiable sexual risks, is not an intravenous drug user, etc.
The Health Professions Council of South Africa’s (HPCSA) Guidelines for Good Practice in Medicine, Dentistry and the Medical Sciences has this to say:
“The risk of transmission of HIV infection in the health care area from patient to patient, patient to health care worker, and from health care worker to patient through inoculation of infected blood or other body fluids has been shown scientifically to be very small. Fears, which are not always based on reality, have thus tended to exaggerate the risks out of all proportion.”
This paragraph is not backed up by any citations and is expressed in language that is out of place in a set of guidelines for health professions; the word ‘scientifically’ is especially incongruous. What does it matter how small a risk of healthcare transmission of HIV is when an infant is HIV positive and the mother and their partner are not? Adults, also, could face healthcare and other non-sexual risks, but are these risks assessed by practitioners who have been told that they are ‘very small’.
The Mozambique research further shows that some HIV positive mothers were likely to have been infected by their HIV positive infants, that HIV negative mothers with HIV positive infants have not been told how their infants may have been infected, that HIV negative mothers have not been told that they can be infected by their HIV positive infants, that some mothers have been allowed to believe that their infant’s HIV positive status is their fault and that some healthcare workers are unable to answer, or even question, these phenomena.
The HPCSA General Ethical Guidelines for the Health Care Professions lists as one of the duties to patients: “Make sure that their personal beliefs do not prejudice their patients’ health care.” Personal beliefs about how the patient may have been infected with HIV, even beliefs based on the HSPCA Guidelines, should not preclude an unprejudiced assessment of both sexual and non-sexual exposure to HIV.
Amnesty International would do well to consider the possible conflicts between the interests of the healthcare professional and the interests of the patient in regard to providing those being tested for HIV with correct and complete information about how the virus is transmitted. When they have finished in South Africa, they may like to extend their investigation to other African countries.
[The Amnesty International report is discussed further in another blog post, October 10 2014]