UNAIDS knickers in a twist, around a scientist’s neck

It seems my “I told you so” moment has come and gone. So has my attempt to defend WHO for its softly-softly honesty about where the HIV epidemic is going. The sensible scientist who heads up WHO’s HIV division, and who last week had the audacity to tell the truth about the threat of heterosexual epidemics outside of Africa (i.e. zero) has had his wrists slapped.

Kevin de Cock has now put his name to a mealy-mouthed UNAIDS/WHO press release which is billed as a “correction” to a story in The Independent last week, which quoted him as saying:

“It is very unlikely there will be a heterosexual epidemic in other countries [outside Africa]. Ten years ago a lot of people were saying there would be a generalised epidemic in Asia – China was the big worry with its huge population. That doesn’t look likely.”

The “correction” doesn’t actually point to any errors in the original story. It doesn’t say Dr. de Cock was misquoted. It doesn’t provide any solid evidence that he is wrong. Instead, it comes out with technically correct but completely irrelevant gems such as this:

“Heterosexual transmission continues to drive the epidemic among sex workers, their clients, and their clients’ partners. In addition, prisoners, injecting drug users, as well as men who have sex with men, may also engage in heterosexual relationships.”

My earlier flippancy notwithstanding, I was genuinely pleased by the story in The Independent. Dr de Cock had started to chip away at the wall of institutional self-interest known as UNAIDS, a wall that requires HIV to be an on-going threat to all of humanity. He had told it like it was; describing a problem accurately is surely a precursor to dealing with it effectively, something that he has been trying to do in difficult circumstances for many years. Apparently, those inside the wall of self-interest twisted Dr de Cock’s arm hard enough to put him out of action. I can think of no other reason that he would put his name to this kind of tosh.

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This post was published on 11/06/08 in Money and AIDS.

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  1. Comment by Roger, 12/06/08, 05:57:

    Worth revisiting?

    Helen Epstein& Stewart Parkinson
    Health Policy and Development Journal, 3:116-118,2005.

    During the past five years there have been dire predictions of a coming ‘New Wave’ of HIV infections that could destabilize strategically important countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. Certainly the epidemic in East and Southern Africa is horrifying. In most countries some 20-40 percent of adults are HIV positive and the long-term social consequences of this disaster are still being analyzed. Approximately 1 percent of adults in India, China and Russia are already infected with HIV. Although this percentage is small, this amounts to millions of people. The prospect of an explosive “New Wave” on the scale of Africa’s in these countries-all growing economic and military powers-is frightening. The CIA was the first to issue warnings about the “New Wave” epidemics and stated that such a prospect should be considered as a threat to US security. But will the “New Wave” ever occur?


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