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More MDG Scapegoats: Industrial Disputes and Gay People

Another Millennium Development Goal (MDG) scapegoat. It sounds like bloody cheek to suggest that Kenya’s failure to reduce new HIV infections as quickly as predicted is a result of health personnel strikes. True, there have been strikes, but the country’s health services were decimated years ago by the strictures of international financial institutions and sheer neglect, and allowed to rot. Successive governments have also done an appalling job when it comes to industrial relations.

According to the article, Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission (PMTCT) coverage “fell by 20 percent in 2011-2012”, from 66% to 53%, representing 13,000 children newly infected with HIV. The 2015 target is close to 100% but, at 38%, Kenya seems unlikely to reach it, and the same could be said for most other African countries. However, there is nothing to back up the ridiculous claim that strikes played a significant part in such a massive fall in coverage.

The article does state that “Experts agree on the main reason behind the reduction in PMTCP – disruptions in the health services”, but that’s hardly a smoking gun. There have been numerous antiretroviral drug stockouts and other disruptions, for various reasons, and these may have a lot more to do with such a large drop in coverage.

Another possible problem in meeting the MDGs could be a transition process that PEPFAR funded programs have been going through. In South Africa it is estimated that “between 50,000 and 200,000 people may have fallen out of care in the transition”. Indeed, there are probably several reports available that would point to the reason for the fall in coverage, but journalists and politicians don’t seem to like reading reports.

Yes another article from Kenya has come up with an even more impertinent suggestion. It claims that there has been an ‘upsurge’ in gay sex, which is slowing the ‘war’ on HIV. The article suggests that Kenya has achieved a lot, with prevalence dropping from 7.2% to 5.6%. Perhaps they are expecting the next set of results to be less flattering.

Men who have sex with men face very high risk of being infected with HIV, and of transmitting it. But Kenya and most other African countries have refused to accept that this is a group that needs special attention, preferring to accept the HIV industry’s contention that most HIV transmission in African countries is a result of unsafe heterosexual sex. It sounds far more manly, doesn’t it.

Because transmission has decreased in some populations, the contribution of infections from men who have sex with men may look like it is increasing. But the claim that the country may not meet some of its MDGs because of an ‘upsurge in gay sex’ is as outrageous as the claim that industrial disputes are disrupting progress in reducing new HIV transmissions.

These are cheap shots at health personnel, gays and traditional birth attendants. But governments, NGOs, UNAIDS, donors and the lucrative HIV industry need all the help they can get when it comes to explaining why billions of dollars did not seem to result in particularly rapid declines in HIV transmission. There will be more to come.

Predicting the Millennium Development Goal Scapegoats

Come 2015 a lot of people will still be flailing about looking for scapegoats to explain their country’s falling short of various Millennium Development Goals. But one group of scapegoats must be well accustomed to having the finger pointed at them; traditional birth attendants (TBA). In an article from Uganda appearing on, TBAs are being “blamed for HIV among newborn babies”.

Is the finger of blame being pointed at them on the basis of research this time, or is it the usual politico/journalistic reflex? The sheer vagueness of the article suggests that it is based on the latter. What self-respecting politician or journalist would read research, anyhow? No checkable source is cited, though that’s nothing unusual for; and one of the people cited says “there are many deaths and new HIV infections among new babies that go undocumented and […] the statistics may be falling short of the exact number”.

If some of the new infections among babies are documented, why are they not also investigated? Are the mothers HIV positive? Or are some of the mothers HIV negative? HIV negative mothers with HIV positive babies are not uncommon, but investigations into this phenomenon in African countries is very rare indeed.

An obvious question for politicians, journalists and others who wish to indulge in the perennial practice of blaming people, whether they be TBAs, men who have sex with men, women, foreigners, truckers or whoever else, is why HIV prevalence tends to be a lot higher in areas where people have better access to health facilities. TBAs tend to be more common in isolated and rural areas, where HIV prevalence is generally a lot lower.

The suggestion is that TBAs are not able to protect babies of HIV positive mothers from being infected, whereas qualified health personnel may be able to prvent mother to child transmission. True as this may be, how are TBAs supposed to be able to resolve this problem themselves? If it is the case that about half of all deliveries are overseen by TBAs, rather than conventional health personnel, this is hardly the fault of TBAs. They are not drawing big salaries, nor are they receiving thorough training or any other incentives for their work.

There are severe shortages of skilled health personnel in Ugandan health facilities. The facilities are stretched beyond their limits already. Is the government going to import enough doctors, nurses and others to fill the 50-60% shortfall that many facilities are experiencing? And more importantly, if the health facilities are going to be even more oversubscribed than they currently are, how safe will they be then? They are not currently safe places to give birth and some health figures show that those attending health facilities could be at higher risk of being infected with HIV.

Before blaming TBAs, it would be a good idea to carry out some research to find out exactly how so many babies are being infected with HIV, and how many have HIV negative mothers. Once that is clear, Uganda will be in a position to figure out what to do next, though it remains to be seen whether the country will be provided with the means to do anything effective. Donors are often keen on providing various health services for high profile, newsworthy conditions, but they are a lot less enthusiastic when it comes to ensuring that health services are safe.