HIV prevention: the gloves are off
I get the feeling that, about 2 years ago, something snapped in the consciousness of public health experts regarding HIV prevention. Enough was enough. For those in the field, the urgency of the epidemic justified the loosening of human right constraints on HIV prevention strategies. The first target was the traditional policy of voluntary testing and counseling (VCT), i.e. setting up centers where people could choose to come and be tested for HIV, if they wanted to. Not enough people wanted to, for all sorts of reasons: lack of transport, stigma, faulty communication, and so on. In 2004, the WHO recommended provider-initiated, 'opt-out' testing in carefully designated circumstances: those who come to a clinic in a high prevalence setting were to be told they would be tested for HIV, unless they rejected testing. The CDC soon followed suit with similar policies. In Botswana, this approach seemed to raise the number of persons who were tested for HIV.
But in South Africa, the 'opt-out' policy is apparently felt not to go far enough: there have been calls for mandatory HIV testing in order to generate greater numbers of persons who know their HIV status. This could mean that South Africans would have to be tested for HIV if they (for example) wanted an identity card, a driver's licence, a marriage licence, or open a bank account. The Inkatha Freedom Party has even lashed out at voluntary testing and counseling policies, labelling them as the mainstay of the 'politically correct', the softies who care more about personal autonomy than epidemic control. VCT, in other words, is for pussies. Not everyone is buying it, of course.
Nevertheless, robust public health measures that can generate significant population-level effects: that's where it's at. Witness Udo Schuklenk's upcoming paper in American Journal of Public Health, which defends a form of mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women. Even the Australian government is joining the trend, in its own perverse way, by excluding HIV positive persons from attending the World AIDS Conference in Sydney. Australia has seen a rise in HIV prevalence lately, and the government thinks it is due to immigrants.
Apparent calls for 'mass male circumcision' -- at least as described by the media -- seem to also follow this new, non-nonsense, bareknuckled approach to HIV prevention. Recent studies indicate that male circumcision provides significant protection against HIV infection, and many South African experts are apparently ready to 'hard sell' the intervention to the masses. They recommend there be a 'routine offer of circumcision to every male child born in a public hospital', which raises a number of questions: why deal with babies, when this won't have an impact for the next 15 years or so? How will communities respond to such aggressive policies? Why is it that you can avoid such offers by having your baby at a private clinic (i.e. being wealthy)? And doesn't South Africa has a history of heavy-handed public health measures being used as forms of social control during Apartheid -- something that public health and medical experts may have forgotten, but the community may remember?
The ethical concerns about confidentiality, autonomy and stigma seem to be increasingly regarded as obstacles to an unfettered, all-out public health attack on the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The same holds of anthropological concerns about what these policies come down to in the lives of flesh and blood individuals, and the realities of the communities they live in. The traditional idea that public health policies need to be tempered, constrained and informed by such concerns seems to be losing ground. Will these 'tough love' approaches to HIV prevention turn the tide? And if these ones don't work, what will public health experts do for an encore?