20 February 2003

Unsafe healthcare "drives spread of African HIV"

Since the 1980s most experts have assumed that heterosexual sex transmitted 90% of HIV in Africa. In the March International Journal of STD and AIDS, an international team of HIV specialists presents groundbreaking evidence to challenge this consensus, with "profound implications" for public health in Africa.

In a series of articles, Dr David Gisselquist, Mr John Potterat and colleagues argue that the spread of HIV infections in Africa is closely linked to medical care. In their unique study of existing data from across the continent they estimate that only about a third of HIV infections are sexually transmitted. Their evidence suggests that "health care exposures caused more HIV than sexual transmission", with contaminated medical injections being the biggest risk.

Sexual behaviour

  • HIV and STDs: According to the authors' data, African HIV did not follow the pattern of sexually transmitted disease (STD). In Zimbabwe in the 1990s HIV increased by 12% a year, while overall STDs declined by 25% and condom use actually increased among high-risk groups.
  • Infection rate: HIV spread very fast in many countries in Africa. For the increase to have been all via heterosexual sex, the study claims, it would have to be as easy to get HIV from sex as from a blood transfusion. In fact, HIV is much more difficult than most STDs to transmit via penile-vaginal sex.
  • Risky sex? Several general behaviour surveys suggest that sexual activity in Africa is not much different from that in North America and Europe. In fact, places with the highest level of risky sexual behaviour, such as Yaounde in Cameroon, have low and stable rates of HIV infection. "Information...from the general population shows most HIV in sexually less active adults".

Did medical care spread HIV?

  • Children and injections: Many studies report young children infected with HIV with mothers who are not infected. One study in Kinshasa kept track of the injections given to infants under two. In one study, nearly 40% of HIV+ infants had mothers who tested negative. These children averaged 44 injections in their lifetimes compared with only 23 for uninfected children.
  • Good access to medical care: Countries like Zimbabwe, with the best access to medical care, have the highest rates of HIV transmission. "High rates [of HIV] in South Africa have paralleled aggressive efforts to deliver health care to rural populations".
  • Riskier to be rich: Most STDs are associated with being poor and uneducated. HIV in Africa is associated with urban living, having a good education, and having a higher income. In one hospital in 1984, the rate of HIV in the senior administrators was 9.2%, compared with the average employee rate of 6.4%.

"People often see what they wish to see"
The authors suggest several reasons why evidence has been ignored until now, including the West's preconceptions about African sexuality, the fear that people might lose trust in healthcare, and simple disbelief that medical practices could be so unsafe.

They conclude: "a growing body of evidence points to unsafe injections and other medical exposures to contaminated blood" as an explanation for the majority of the spread of the epidemic. "This finding has major ramifications for current and future HIV control programmes in Africa".

ends - 20 February 2003

Read the articles:
Mounting anomalies in the epidemiology of HIV in Africa: cry the beloved paradigm [PDF 68k]
Let it be sexual: how health care transmission of AIDS in Africa was ignored [PDF 137k]
Heterosexual transmission of HIV in Africa: an empiric estimate [PDF 139k]

Further information

For further information contact:
Media Office
Tel: + 44 (0) 20 7290 2904
Email: media@rsm.ac.uk