Bloodborne HIV: Don't Get Stuck!

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Hepatitis B Virus and Kenya’s Mass Male Circumcision Programs – Why the Secrecy?


With all the posturing in the recently released Kenya Aids Indicator Survey (2012) about mass male circumcision, whether performed in completely unsterile conditions found in traditional settings or the (hopefully) more sterile settings of health facilities, nothing was mentioned about hepatitis B or C. But an article in the East African describes a piece of research carried out by the Kenya Medical Research Institute into hepatitis B (HBV) which finds that prevalence is increasing.

Amazingly, the article admits that the “modes of transmission [for HBV] are similar to HIV — sexual transmission, contaminated blood products and mother to child transmission”; it is “passed from person to person through bodily fluids such as blood, semen or vaginal fluids”. Following a recent paper on HIV transmission through medical injections, it is very important to stress that HIV, like HBV, can be transmitted through non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices.

The article is equally frank about the lack of research into HBV in Kenya: “scientists say the reason for the rise in HBV in Kenya is still unknown since no scientific study has been done to explain the phenomenon”. In contrast, the HIV industry is a lot less frank about non-sexual HIV transmission, even though the country’s Infection Control Policy admits that “Epidemiological data on HAIs [Healthcare Associated Infection] in Kenya is currently lacking, but the risk for HAIs is high”. Slowly, some of these glaring gaps in research are being filled in, though the HIV industry displays a confidence that seems entirely unjustified.

Importantly, HBV among blood donors in Kenya is rising. Are those donating their blood being exposed to contaminated medical instruments through the blood transfusion services? The Kenyan Blood Transfusion Service is not able to supply enough blood to keep up with current demand, so they would need to make sure that people who donate are not being put at risk of infection with HBV or other blood borne viruses. While no one would want to scare people away from health facilities or from blood donation, keeping risks a secret would surely be a lot worse, wouldn’t it?

The article suggests that the counties finding high rates of HBV are in the Northern parts of Kenya (which often have the lowest HIV rates). It is suggested that “The likely causes of HBV in the region are cultural practices like tattooing, circumcising without using sterilised implements and because the regions are dry and people may not be able to get proper nutrition that ensures strong immunity.” As usual, there is a reluctance to ask if health facilities might also be somewhat responsible; does that mean these facilities will not be investigated, and that conditions, if unsafe, will not be improved?

There are various hepatitis related campaigns, but are WHO and other international health institutions going to ensure that all the people involved in the country’s mass male circumcision programs, will be protected from infection with HBV and hepatitis C virus (HCV) as well? WHO makes vague claims about huge proportions of HBV and HCV being transmitted as a result of unsafe healthcare. But what exactly are the figures for ‘priority’ mass male circumcision countries? Again, it’s likely that healthcare safety is more of a risk in these ‘priority’ countries, some of the poorest countries, with amongst the lowest levels of healthcare spending in the world, than it is in Western countries; why are we only given one, generalized figure, when the viruses must be much more prevalent in some countries than others?

Egypt, as (just one) example of a country with a serious hepatitis problem, has seen the figure for years of life lost (YLL) through HBV increase by 3,930% in the 20 years from 1990 to 2010. Liver cancer has increased by 361% in the same period. Cirrhosis has increased by 40% to become the number three cause of YLL, accounting for 1,127,000 YLLs, or 7.1% of all YLLs. Whether the almost 100% prevalence of circumcision in the country contributes to these figures is another question, but it shows what can happen in a country where there is a very high level of access to healthcare, yet where healthcare safety is not adequately addressed. One of the main reasons HCV prevalence is higher in Egypt than anywhere else in the world is because of schistosomiasis vaccination programs, which were carried out using inadequately sterilized glass syringes.

Reusable syringes and needles are no longer commonly used, but the WHO data shows that there is still a problem with unsafe injection practices. So the last thing high HIV prevalence African countries need is a vastly increased risk of bloodborne virus transmission through unsafe healthcare, whether this involves reuse of injecting equipment or other items that are used to pierce the skin during healthcare procedures. Mass male circumcision programs will likely increase the incidence of unsafe healthcare practices, including injections, and the WHO’s claimed benefits in terms of averted infections may not be enough to outweigh the risks involved.

Even if levels of protection against sexually transmitted HIV outweigh the risks, and this is highly debatable (and debated, outside of the HIV industry), what about the risks of infection with HBV, HCV or other bloodborne pathogens, including HIV, during the circumcision procedure itself? Some recent research has questioned the safety of Kenya’s health facilities. There are clearly more risks than those pushing the circumcision programs would like to admit; so will those who succumb to HIV industry pressure be advised of those risks? I suspect they will not.

HIV Eradication May Require Regime Change in HIV Industry


Having collected the data in 2012, the Kenya Aids Indicator Survey (KAIS) was released last week. Prevalence has fallen in most provinces. The exceptions are Northeastern Province, where data was not collected due to civil unrest, and Nyanza, where prevalence has increased from almost 14% in 2008 to 15% in 2012. 37% of Kenya’s HIV positive people reside in Nyanza. So the news is not so bad if you don’t come from Nyanza, especially if you don’t come from any of the exceptionally high prevalence towns on the shores of Lake Victoria.

Prevalence is now 5.6%, closer to Tanzania’s 5.1% than Uganda’s 7.2%. As usual, HIV prevalence is generally higher among women (6.9%) than among men (4.4%), higher among urban dwelling people than rural dwelling people and higher among employed people than unemployed people. Prevalence is lowest among females and males who have less education and higher among those who have completed primary or reached secondary or beyond. Prevalence tends to be higher among wealthier quintiles in rural areas and among poorer quintiles in urban areas, which may represent a change in HIV prevalence by wealth quintiles in earlier surveys.

With about 100,000 people being newly infected each year, incidence is said to be 0.5% and the highest number of new infections occurred among people aged between 25 and 34 years, with incidence estimated at 1.2%. Incidence has barely changed between 2007 and 2012, what the report refers to as ‘stable’. The entire epidemic could be described as stable, rather than declining, as prevalence has remained much the same for more than ten years.

Predictably, there are quite a few figures relating to the mass male circumcision program. You don’t put tens of millions of dollars into a program without making sure that you collect data showing that the program was successful. Clearly the program is not successful yet, with the bulk of circumcisions claimed for Nyanza province, which has a prevalence figure nearly three times the national figure. But there is a lot of triumphalist stuff about how high HIV prevalence is among uncircumcised people. Of course, none of the data throws any light on why HIV prevalence is so high among people in this province, so high among Luo people especially, yet not among Kisii or Kuria people.

The level of bullying and manipulation by those running mass male circumcision programs (which the HIV industry likes to refer to as voluntary medical male circumcision or VMMC) becomes apparent when you read some of the literature. Although the invasive operation’s claimed protective value against HIV (and goodness knows what else) has never been very convincing, people are systematically browbeaten over a period of years about hygiene benefits, which have never been demonstrated at all, ‘modernity’ of circumcision, ease of using condoms, increased sexual pleasure and a host of other things for which there is no evidence whatsoever.

According to the abstract “older men should adopt the practice to serve as role models to younger men”, as if there is some moral value in circumcision being provided by a benevolent dictator. UNAIDS addsn a commonly heard claim about “queues of young men and boys awaiting” mass male circumcision, which is clearly drawn from publicity materials rather than from any kind of independent research.

Talking of invasive operations, there is a chapter on blood and injection safety, ironically appearing straight after the mass male circumcision chapter. The figures for blood safety do not sound very encouraging, especially remarks about ‘misclassifications’ in donor records. UNAIDS’ ‘all men are bastards, all women are victims’ theory of HIV transmission gets a bit of a knock as well since nearly four times as many men as women said they donated blood in the 12 months before the survey. The findings about injection safety have been mentioned already on this site  when a full paper was published on the subject in May.

The question now is ‘what next’? Mounds of data have been collected over many years, mostly high level data that gives few clues about how people are becoming infected. Data about ‘attitudes’, sexual behavior, economic circumstances, education, etc, have not allowed any useful ‘targeting’ because the usual conclusion is that ‘it is all about sex’ and other kinds of victim blaming. So it’s heartening to hear that data is being collected about blood and injection safety, albeit a very small amount.

The next step needs to involve comprehensive contact tracing, finding out about people’s non-sexual as well as their sexual contacts, visits to health facilities, traditional practitioners, cosmetic providers and anywhere skin-piercing procedures are carried out. If someone is HIV positive it must be asked who, or what did they come into contact with, whether as a result of sexual or any other kind of behavior. Will the deep prejudices of the HIV industry allow them to take these investigations where they need to go, or will the eradication of HIV have to wait until there’s a regime change in the HIV industry?

Why Contact Tracing is Vital in High HIV Prevalence African Countries


A recent blog post I wrote received some comments from ‘Brad’, at The Mosaic Initiative, a grassroots organization based in the US. Although Brad seems to think that what I wrote accords in some way with what he believes, it is quite clear to me that we both think very different things about HIV.

For a start, I believe that HIV epidemics in African countries are NOT like HIV epidemics in the US and other Western countries. The bulk of HIV transmission in Western countries is a result of either male to male sex or injected drug use. The bulk of HIV transmission in African countries is not a result of either of these, in any country.

The very point of the Don’t Get Stuck With HIV website and blog is that no African country has made a convincing estimate of the proportion of HIV transmission that is a result of sexual, as opposed to non-sexual transmission. It is just assumed that about 80% is a result of heterosexual sex and most of the remaining 20% is accounted for by mother to child transmission; these assumptions have been held for more than 20 years and emanate from WHO, the World Bank, UNAIDS and other institutions that control HIV funding, globally and in African countries.

I also disagree with Brad that it is merely “important to know how HIV is spreading”; it is vital to know whether someone was infected through sex, through unsafe healthcare, through some traditional practice or in a tattoo studio. There is no “generalized pandemic” that Brad speaks of. In Western countries, the vast majority of people are not at risk of being infected with HIV. Even in African countries some people are more likely to be infected than others; in Burundi HIV prevalence is low, but in Botswana it is high. In cities, even Bujumbura, prevalence tends to be high.

Prevalence is almost always higher among women than men in high prevalence African countries, higher among employed people than unemployed people, higher among wealthier people than poor people, etc. There is a huge level of heterogeneity, between and within countries. This heterogeneity does not seem to correlate very much with sexual behavior, though you may believe otherwise if you have immersed yourself in HIV industry literature.

For example, birth rates are high in Kenya’s Northeastern Province, condom use is low, education is low, poverty is high, intergenerational marriage and sex rates are high, all things thought to relate to high HIV transmission; but HIV prevalence is the lowest in the country, lower than in some US cities.

The problem with the approach of UNAIDS and others is not that they employ ‘targeting’, as Brad suggests, but that their assumption implies that all sexually active people who engage in heterosexual sex are equally at risk in African countries. You can’t ‘target’ everyone in a population, or even half or a quarter of hundreds of millions of people.

Although UNAIDS and others claim that the bulk of HIV transmission is a result of heterosexual sex between people in long term monogamous relationships, with the implication that one or both partners must have had ‘unsafe’ sex outside of their relationships, they do not carry out contact tracing, that is, investigating ALL the possibilities for how each person was infected.

Most of the emphasis is on sexual transmission, and even then, sexual partners are usually not tested; when they are tested the HIV types are usually not matched. Therefore, it is almost always unknown how each person was infected, even though it is almost always assumed, in the absence of data to prove it, that each infection was a result of ‘unsafe’ heterosexual sex.

Effectively, UNAIDS and others in the HIV industry are not targeting any group because they don’t have a clue where to look. They assume that almost everyone who is HIV positive engages in ‘unsafe’ sex; they also assume that anyone who engages in any kind of sexual activity they consider to be ‘unsafe’ is a ‘risk group’, and that IS every sexually active heterosexual (or heterosexual who has sex with heterosexuals, or whatever nomenclature you care to adopt).

HIV status is not an indication of sexual activity, ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’; and sexual activity is not an indication of HIV status or HIV ‘risk’. People in the US and other Western countries may object to contact tracing but in African countries it is vital. It has been avoided in African countries precisely because some have decided that it is a ‘bad thing’, that it ‘stigmatizes’ people, but as a result ALL African people in high prevalence countries have been stigmatized. The situation in Africa is not like the situation in Western countries and the sooner the HIV industry realizes that, the better.

Tanzania: HIV Industry Still Failing to Collect Data on Non-Sexual Transmission


One of the many damaging consequences of assuming that HIV is almost always transmitted through usafe sex is that those working with HIV tend not to notice non-sexual transmission, such as through unsafe healthcare, traditional and cosmetic practices. This blog and site is littered with examples of these modes of transmission, and of the HIV industry studiously ignoring every instance of transmission that they can’t explain away as being somehow related to sexual transmission.

High rates of transmission among ‘older’ people, which refers to people who are more than 49 years old (my current age), always comes as a surprise to those working for the industry. The Victorian prudishness that seems to affect people working with HIV means that they believe everyone gives up sex at some arbitrary time in their lives. Bizarre!

But older people, and that means people over 50 in developing countries, where life expectancy is much lower than in Western countries, don’t only continue having sex. They may also require health services more frequently than younger people. While that may not surprise those in the HIV industry, they have had a lot of trouble with the notion that understaffed, underfunded, underequipped health facilities may not be able to provide the safest health services in the world.

Research carried out in Tanzania finds that HIV prevalence among people from 50-98 years was 7.8%, compared to the national figure of 5.1% for people aged 15-49 years. HIV prevalence was higher in urban than rural areas, in common with figures for Tanzania as a whole [note that this is the opposite to what is stated in the abstract but I’m assuming the following text and data are correct]. While prevalence was a very high 12.9% among people 50-59 years old, it dropped to 5.7% among the 60-69 years age group and 3.7% among the 70+ age group.

The two areas for which data was collected, Mufindi and Babati, are in one of the highest (Iringa) and one of the lowest prevalence regions (Manyara), respectively, in mainland Tanzania. Prevalence among 50-98 year olds was 3.7% in Babati and 11.3% in Mufindi. The figure for Mufindi is not so shocking compared to Iringa’s 9.1% prevalence; in contrast, the figure for Babati is more than double the figure for Manyara region, which stands at 1.5%.

But it’s a pity the breakdown for male and female figures for each area is not available. The ratio of female to male prevalence in Iringa is 63%, similar to the national figure of 61%. But the same ratio in Manyara is 11%; there are about 9 HIV positive women for every HIV positive man. Is this shocking ratio maintained among people between 50 and 98 years old?

As is usual with these studies, no data was collected about non-sexual transmission, whether through unsafe healthcare, traditional or cosmetic practices. While the authors conclude that interventions should now target ‘older’ people, they fail to consider non-sexual HIV transmission, which means that some of the most important risk factors will continue to be ignored, and HIV will continue to be transmitted, independent of anything the HIV industry spends its millions on.

Borborygmus: Recent Contributions to HIV Epidemiology


David Gisselquist has already written a critical reaction to Jacques Pepin’s latest attempt to rewrite the history of HIV and unsafe injections. But AidsMap has gone in the opposite direction, by writing a completely uncritical, triumphalist regurgitation of Pepin’s paper, without finding anything strange about this ‘study’.

It’s odd enough that Pepin’s findings happen to match earlier claims from him and others, some made quite a number of years ago, as if simply wishing away HIV transmission through syringe and needle reuse were enough to almost eradicate it completely.

But in the ten year period Pepin is dealing with, sexual transmission has received almost all the attention and funding; yet the contribution of sexual transmission must have increased if Pepin is correct. At the same time, non-sexual transmission, which has yet to be addressed, even acknowledged by the HIV hierarchy, has dropped by almost 90%, a truly etymological decimation.

Pepin’s estimations, the provenance of which are very unclear, fly in the face of data collected by the Kenya Aids Indicator Survey. A paper using data from this survey finds that men who have had one or more injection in the previous 12 months were three times more likely to be HIV positive and women were two and a half times more likely.

The minute number of HIV transmissions that Pepin estimates were a result of unsafe medical injections in a year globally, 17,000-34,000, could be closer to the number of HIV transmissions in Kenya alone that were transmitted through various non-sexual routes.

Vague proportions of HIV transmission through sexual and non-sexual modes are estimated using the thoroughly flawed Modes of Transmission Model, which is well criticized on this site. So it remains a mystery what Pepin is talking about. Kenya is unlikely to be the only country where unsafe healthcare contributes a substantial proportion of HIV transmissions; but it is one of the few countries in Africa that has carried out any research into this phenomenon.

Prejudice Continues to Blind UNAIDS to Non-Sexual HIV Transmission


Perhaps the author means well by speculating about how much ‘sodomy’ there is in Zambian prisons. But articles like this miss a great opportunity to look at possible non-sexual HIV risks in prisons. For example, what are safety standards like in prison health facilities? Do prisoners engage in cosmetic practices, such as tattooing, piercing, even shaving and hairdressing? Do any of them engage in traditional practices that may involve skin piercing or cutting? Do any engage in blood oaths or anything else that could result in a HIV negative person coming into contact with the blood of a HIV positive person?

The article says that “homosexuality is among the six key drivers of the transmission of HIV in” Zambia. One source lists these drivers as: multiple and concurrent sexual partners, mother to child transmission, low and inconsistent condom use, vulnerable and marginalized groups, low rates of male circumcision and mobility and labour migration. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

No non-sexual ‘drivers’ are clearly identified there. But the list is a very weak tool for identifying the risks that many people face, given that prevalence reaches over 20% in the capital, Lusaka, and close to that figure in two other provinces. For example, several articles have shown that having multiple partners does not account for extremely high rates of HIV transmission; concurrent partnerships are no higher in high prevalence areas than in low prevelence areas, but they can not account for very high rates of transmission either, despite the frequent, triumphalist literature spewed out on the subject.

Many women are infected fairly late in their pregnancy or just after giving birth, when they are unlikely to have engaged in any kind of sexual behavior, let alone unsafe sexual behavior; and the partners of many women who seroconvert are HIV negative. In addition, some women are infected by their infant, who could only have been infected by some kind of non-sexual route, such as unsafe healthcare. We have no idea how common this phenomenon is.

HIV prevalence in many countries is higher among those who sometimes use condoms and lower among those who say they never do. Condom use only protects against sexual transmission of HIV, not against non-sexual transmission. The issue of circumcision is highly controversial and it has never been shown that the mass male circumcision programs currently being carried out in high HIV prevalence African countries will have any impact on HIV transmission, except by the use of dubious figures conjured up by those who believe that circumcision is superior to the alternative, which involves not slicing off a healthy piece of genital flesh.

Mobility and labor migration are perhaps more closely related to ‘vulnerable and marginalized groups’ in Zambia because HIV prevalence is exceptionally high among those involved in mining, for example. Many miners are mobile, many are immigrants, and high levels of HIV prevalence means that they are singled out for stigmatization by the HIV industry, which insists that HIV is almost always transmitted through unsafe sex. Therefore these high prevalence groups must be promiscuous, also careless, selfish, predatory and a whole lot of other pejorative things.

The HIV industry continues to stigmatize people who are often already marginalized, blame people who are infected and alienate people who are most vulnerable to suffering from poor health, facing many other hazards relating to health, poverty, education and employment. There are two ‘drivers’ of HIV epidemics, sexual and non-sexual. The industry concentrates on sexual transmission to the almost total exclusion of non-sexual transmission. This needs to be addressed if countries like Zambia are to reduce HIV transmission, especially in prisons and mining areas, and eventually eradicate it altogether.

[For more about non-sexually transmitted HIV through unsafe healthcare, cosmetic and traditional practices and how to protect yourself, visit the Don’t Get Stuck With HIV site.]

More junk science underestimating HIV from medical injections


AIDS experts still haven’t figured out what is different about Africa that can explain why HIV epidemics there are so much worse than elsewhere. The continuing failure to find what is different exposes persistent (intentional or natural) incompetence on the part of respected researchers.

Specifically, scores of studies that have tested, followed, and retested hundreds of thousands of HIV-negative Africans to find when and how they get HIV have failed to trace the source of observed new infections.[1] Without tracing the source, there is no way to say infections came from sex – but “HIV from sex” is nevertheless the conclusion (and racist slur) from decades of incompetent, incomplete research. When such studies find people with new HIV infections who report no possible sexual exposure to HIV, researchers characteristically reject the evidence: “hmmmm, an African with HIV…must have lied about sexual behavior….”

With that “scientific” method, the US National Institutes of Health and UK’s Medical Research Council could save money by paying researchers sitting in offices in Baltimore, US, or Oxford, UK, to make up data to fit pre-determined conclusions. That would be more efficient than paying them to go to Africa, collect data, and then reject what doesn’t fit desired conclusions.

While funders have avoided funding good science to explain Africa’s HIV epidemics – for 30 years and counting – they have been all too happy to fund junk science that will get the desired results. One popular junk-science strategy to get desired results has been to model Africa’s HIV epidemic with unreliable parameters and weak, selected, or made-up data.

The latest paper by Pepin and colleagues[2] falls into that category of junk science – presenting a model with unreliable parameters and data, and using results from the model to claim that unsafe medical injections accounted for less than 1% of new HIV infections in Africa in 2010 (8,000-16,000 from injections vs. 1.9 million total new infections[3]).

Several obvious problems with the estimate are as follows:

1. Pepin’s assumed rate of HIV transmission through a contaminated syringe or needle – 1 in 150-300 injections – is far too low to allow observed HIV outbreaks through health care in Russia, Romania, Libya, and elsewhere. If those outbreaks occurred – they did! – then Pepin’s proposed rate of HIV transmission through injections is misleadingly low. For example, in Russia in 1988-89 hospital procedures passed from HIV from 1 child to more than 260 children in 15 months. Most transmissions in this outbreak came from children who had been infected less than 6 weeks earlier – enough time for infected children to get dozens but not 150-300 skin-piercing procedures followed by reuse of unsterilized instruments.[4]

2. Pepin’s same model estimates 4,300-8,500 new hepatitis C virus (HCV) infections in Africa from unsafe injections in 2010, less than 1% of estimated new HCV infections (cf: an estimated 18 million Africans were living with HCV in 2005[5], which corresponds to approximately 1 million new infections per year). Because virtually all new HCV infections come from blood, not sex, it’s likely that unsafe injections account for a lot more than 1% of new HCV infections – and by extension, more than 1% of new HIV infections as well. Furthermore, other skin-piercing procedures aside from injections likely account for a lot of new HCV infections – and by extension a lot of new HIV infections as well.

3. Pepin’s estimates distract from facts that need answers. Why do 16%-31% of HIV-positive children in Mozambique, Swaziland, and Uganda, have HIV-negative mothers (among children with tested mothers)?[6] Why do so many mutually monogamous couples find that one or both partners are HIV-positive?

In his conclusion, Pepin commendably recognizes “other modes of iatrogenic transmission” including[2]: “use of multi-dose medication vials, phlebotomies with re-used needles, dental care with improper sterilisation of instruments, unscreened transfusions, ritual scarifications and circumcisions performed by traditional practitioners… Better measurement of such exposures and of their impact on viral dynamics is an essential first step…”

Even so, Pepin does not hit the nail on the head. What is required to measure the “impact [of such procedures] on viral dynamics” is to trace HIV infections to their source. When infections are traced a hospital, dental clinic, tattooist, etc, then continue with outbreak investigations to determine the extent of the damage from unsafe health care or other skin-piercing procedure.

References

1. Gisselquist. Randomized controlled trials for HIV/AIDS prevention in Africa: Untraced infections, unasked questions, and unreported data. Available at: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1940999 (accessed 14 June 2014).

2. Pepin et al. Evolution of the global burden of viral infections from unsafe medical injections, 2000-2010. PLOS one 2014; 9: 1-8. Available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0099677 (accessed 14 June 2014).

3. Annex table 9 in: UNAIDS. Global HIV/AIDS Response: Epidemic update and health sector progress towards Universal Access, progress report 2011. Available at: http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2011/9789241502986_eng.pdf?ua=1 (accessed 15 June 2014).

4. See: http://dontgetstuck.org/russia-cases-and-investigations/

5. Hanafiah et al. Global epidemiology of hepatitis C virus infection. Hepatitis 2013. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/hep.26141/pdf (accessed 14 June 2014).

6. See pages for Mozambique, Swaziland, and Uganda at: http://dontgetstuck.org/cases-unexpected-hiv-infections/; see also: https://dontgetstuck.wordpress.com/cases-unexpected-hiv-infections/).