Uganda's HIV response: Hit snooze again

Uganda's HIV response: Hit snooze again

Moshi : Tanzania | Jul 02, 2012 at 8:39 AM PDT
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Circumcision Decision Part 1

There have been several mentions of results from Uganda's 2011 Aids Indicator Survey over the past 6 or more months. However I can't find a copy of the report anywhere, not even the highlights or executive summary. But the news doesn't sound good. According to one of the newspaper mentions, the number of people infected with HIV has increased from 1.2m in 2005 to 2.4m today. That's a heck of an increase for a country that is supposed to have been the first in Africa to bring the epidemic under control.

As usual, someone has pointed out that high prevalence does not necessarily mean failed prevention policies because if more people are on treatment they will live longer, keeping the prevalence higher. However, the figure is increasing quickly, not staying the same. Tens of thousands of HIV positive people still die every year. The fact that about half of the 600,000 people eligible for treatment are receiving ARV drugs is great, but it's probably better not to draw too much attention to an epidemic that more than doubles (almost half a million probably died) in 7 years, despite the amount of money being spent on treatment.

The 'treatment as prevention' strategy, which goes under various names, involves the hypothesis that if every HIV positive person, or at least 80% of them, were to be put on ARVs straight away, they would be far less likely to transmit HIV to others. Transmission among people responding to treatment has been shown to be very low. But Uganda struggles to keep less than 15% of HIV positive people supplied with drugs, with frequent stock outs and many people being lost to follow up every year and resistance developing at an increasing rate.

There is still the constant argument and counter-argument about promiscuity and the rest, but this aspect of HIV transmission is now sounding rather idiotic. It's been going on since the 1980s. If people want to believe that a few sound bites about abstinence and faithfulness had any significant influence on the course of the epidemic, let them. But it's not having any influence any more, nor has it likely to have played any part for the last 20 years. It's time to move on.

Another article claims that HIV prevalence in Kabarole district among secondary schools is 30%. If that's true, and I have no way of corroborating it, such an outbreak would need to be investigated. It is claimed that a lot more females than males are infected, which is attributed to cross-generational sex. Males, on the other hand, are said to have been infected since birth.

The proportion of males infected must be very small indeed as prevalence among children under 5 is less than 1% and many of them will not survive into their teenage years, let alone adulthood. The percentage of children receiving treatment for HIV is also very low. Someone interviewed for the article said they want to avoid infections by using the ABC (abstain, be faithful, use a condom) strategy, presumably believing that it was used successfully in the past.

Perhaps believing it will be successful in the future, despite evidence being slight, students in a Uganda high school are putting their faith in male circumcision. The target of 1000 students was exceeded by 23, so now those extolling the virtues of circumcision have to ensure that neither the students nor their sexual partners believe that they can enjoy unprotected sex just because the male has had the operation. You'd think that wouldn't be too hard, but research has shown these beliefs to be common.

Sadly, although male circumcision may reduce HIV transmission from females to males, prevalence is currently a lot higher in females; and male circumcision may increase transmission from males to females. So it's hard to see any net benefit.

Instead of obsessing about sexual behavior, which is probably not that different in Uganda than in many other countries, those who express concern about HIV transmission rates could take a look at conditions in health facilities. If they expect people to use those facilities, safety and infection control procedures would need to be increased. But hospitals and clinics are understaffed, underfunded, there are shortages of drugs, equipment and supplies, standards of safety and hygiene are appalling. This is likely to have some influence on HIV transmission rates. But even if it doesn't, everyone will benefit from better health and healthcare and confidence in health service provision will increase.

But somehow, I can't see campaigns to improve health services, nutrition and food security, water and sanitation, infrastructure and education having quite the headline grabbing value as campaigns about sex, Africans, HIV positive babies, abstinence, condoms and whatever else the publicity people at UNAIDS dream up. I imagine the 'Woes of Tororo Hospital' and 'Kitgum Hospital - a Facility Falling Apart' receive a lot less attention than ones about circumcision, sex in schools, gay bashing and HIV figures doubling. It's hard to know what proportion of HIV is transmitted through non-sexual routes, such as unsafe healthcare. But it's unlikely to become clearer until healthcare associated HIV infections are properly investigated.

[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission and mass male circumcision, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]

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By the end of 2008, 33.4 million people were infected with HIV
By the end of 2008, 33.4 million people were infected with HIV
Simon Collery is based in Arusha, Arusha, Tanzania, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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