Rattling bones

Two great moments took place in 1996. One was the famous Protease Moment, when scientists electrified the Vancouver AIDS Conference with the announcement of the first truly-effective HIV treatment protocol, using a combination of 3+ meds including a protease inhibitor. The other was an Australian social researcher, Gary Dowsett, standing up at the same conference saying the young men in his research study were post-AIDS. They had grown up and come out and learned how to have sex with HIV always in the background; it was nothing new, not a crisis, and didn’t form the centre of their gay existence.

One man in the audience was the gay writer Eric Rofes, and he got the significance of both moments immediately. Within two years Rofes had written and published one of the great classics, Dry Bones Breathe (Haworth, 1998). He castigates “AIDS Inc” for its insistent reliance upon a crisis mentality, and the failure of the “brain trust” to respond to those two great moments. At an AIDS org in SF, he sees all the classics* sitting on a bookshelf, but a staffer tells him nobody there has any time to read them. That sounds familiar, I thought, having worked for the AIDS council in my home state at a time when HIV infection rates were rising.

I had coffee on Friday with a colleague from a PLWHA org in another state who’s working on a project about what sector shorthand calls ‘interesting times’ – a constellation of trends including the normalisation of gay, the declining relevance of community, increasing UAI and serosorting, criminalisation, public health, the Internet, and so forth. It calls for an open mind about how all of these things interact in the current moment, but crisis thinking admits no subtlety and takes no prisoners; at some point in the past 11 years of the culture wars, advocacy became a blood sport.

By “crisis thinking” I don’t mean we’re all still running around waving our hands in the air, although I have seen that happen. I mean the strategic deployment of outrage in response to anyone who questions the norms underpinning the community-based response to HIV. The ever-percipient Rofes called the institutional actors on the conservative moral underpinnings of their insistence on the need for gay men to take personal responsibility for the epidemic, pointing to its continuity with a contemporary moral panic about sex.

That panic was still going strong eight years later, when I made it the focus of a 2006 conference paper on “Barebacking and Bugchasing: Images in a Jurisprudence of Desire”. Without question it underlies much of the argument for gay marriage and the criminalisation of HIV transmission. The problem for the HIV sector in Australia (and elsewhere) is that a full decade later most of our key decision-makers are still no closer to understanding the points Rofes made in 1998 and Dowsett made even earlier.

The Nuns Didn’t Do It

For years, there has been a robust counter-dialogue against the official position that HIV started to spread among humans following a single transmission event between an infected ape and a jungle butcher.

Skeptics point to the smallpox and polio vaccination missions conducted all throughout the Congo by nuns and nurses who used the same needle to vaccinate entire villages of people.

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) suggests the nuns didn’t do it.  Or they did no more than 0 to 6% of it. The rest, it says, either can’t be explained by the vaccination theory or is better explained by sexual or vertical (mother-child) transmission.  (Press release, 3 Jun 07)

Abstinence (Education) Doesn’t Work

Conservatives promote abstinence education using a simple syllogism. Abstinence means not having sex. If you’re not having sex, you can’t get pregnant or become positive. Of course, that’s treating abstinence education as abstinence in fact. They’re assuming the education is 100% effective. Now it’s official — abstinence is a crock.

WASHINGTON, April 14 (AP) — Students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex as those who did not, according to a study ordered by Congress. Continue reading “Abstinence (Education) Doesn’t Work”

Michael Neal Committal Hearing

A committal hearing has begun hearing evidence in support of charges brought against Michael Neal, a 48-year old father of five from Coburg who stands accused of deliberately infecting other men with HIV. There are 122 charges relating to unprotected sexual encounters with 16 men between 2000 and 2006, when Mr Neal knew he was positive; he is accused of infecting two men with HIV during this period.

These details are contained in a wire story from AAP, carried by the Sydney Morning Herald and Herald-Sun on Tuesday 20 March. The story begins with “An HIV-positive Melbourne man organised orgies to deliberately infect other men with the virus, a court was told today.”

As it turns out, the story is reporting the opening statement of prosecutor Mark Rochford.

A committal hearing is held to establish whether there’s sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial, judged on a ‘balance of probabilities’ test rather than the higher ‘reasonable doubt’ standard applied at trial.

The opening statement is an outline of what the prosecution hopes it will be able to evidence at the hearing. It isn’t evidence. Reporting it as fact, before any evidence has even been heard, is highly prejudicial.

The prosecution has chosen to tap straight into barebacking discourse — the inflammatory language of ‘gift-givers’, ‘breeding’ and ‘bug-chasers’ — with Mr Rochford accusing Neal of organising “conversion parties”.

In the event he’s committed for trial, extensive press coverage of these claims might make it very difficult to give him a fair hearing. The Herald-Sun is already having a field day with headlines like “Deadly HIV game, court told” (20/3) and “HIV infection fantasies” (22/3).

Given the amazing power of barebacking discourse to suck all the oxygen out of an issue, leaving reason gasping in its wake, I hope to keep an open mind about Michael Neal, at least until we hear some more substantial evidence about what it’s alleged has taken place.

High transmission risk among recently-infected people

Press Release from Infectious Diseases Society of America
Source: News-Medical.Net 09 Mar 2007 – 19:00 PST

New evidence suggests that the risk of HIV transmission may be highest in the early stages of infection. According to a study published in the April 1 issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, now available online, early infection accounted for nearly half of all transmission occurrences in an HIV-infected population in the province of Quebec, Canada.

Bluma Brenner, PhD, and Mark Wainberg, PhD, of the McGill AIDS Centre in Montreal, and colleagues from several hospitals and health clinics in Canada studied HIV transmission through phylogenetic analysis – essentially, drawing the virus’s family tree. The technique follows the history of a virus as it spreads from one person to another by looking at the evolution of viral genetic material in infected individuals.

Drs. Brenner, Wainberg, and colleagues found that 49 percent of early infections formed phylogenetic clusters – very close branches on the family tree. This indicated that a large portion of HIV acquisition could be attributed to individuals transmitting the virus who were themselves in the early stages of infection, before the virus had had time to mutate much. Therefore, early infection – also known as primary infection – which represented “less than 10 percent of the total samples, disproportionately accounted for about half of subsequent transmission events.”

A high viral load associated with early HIV infection is what makes newly infected individuals so infectious, according to Drs. Brenner and Wainberg. In an editorial accompanying the article, authors Deenan Pillay, MD, of the Health Protection Agency and University College London, and Martin Fisher, MD, of the Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals, pointed out that diagnosis of HIV reduces the risk of transmission. But, they note, symptoms of primary HIV infection are non-specific. Only a small proportion of infected individuals are diagnosed in early infection, thus compounding the difficulties in preventing transmission at that stage of infection.

“The early infection stage can be entirely asymptomatic,” Dr. Wainberg added. “This is why people who are recently infected may not know it, and will probably often test negative by conventional antibody screening. Hence, we must do a much better job of identifying recently infected people if we are to be able to counsel them to modify high-risk sexual behavior and desist from transmitting the virus.”

He suggested the development of affordable tests such as polymerase chain reaction assays to directly monitor the presence of the virus, instead of relying on the current method of antibody screening.

In addition, Dr. Pillay and Fisher asserted that more innovative and effective prevention strategies are needed to stem HIV transmission during primary infection and block the spread of drug-resistant viruses.

Victoria’s HIV cases at highest level in 20 years

By Carol Nader, The Age  (10 March 2007)

NEW reports of HIV have reached their highest level in Victoria in 20 years, prompting criticism that State G0overnment efforts to reduce the numbers have failed.

The Department of Human Services was notified of 334 cases of HIV last year, 17 per cent higher than the 285 in 2005 and the highest number since 1987.

But the Government says 70 of the notifications were for people who had first tested HIV-positive in another state or country. A doctor tested them again here and by law must alert the department.

When that is taken into account, there were 264 new diagnoses last year and 242 in 2005 — a rise of 9 per cent. The figure is double the number of new diagnoses in 1999.

The latest rise has prompted Michael Wooldridge, chairman of the Federal Government’s advisory committee on sexually transmissible infections (STIs), to say: “The effort in Victoria has been an abject failure.”

In NSW, the number of new cases has been stable since they peaked at 414 in 2003. They fell to 391 in 2005, and the AIDS Council of NSW expects the final 2006 figure to reflect a further reduction of at least 10 per cent to about 346.

Dr Wooldridge, a former Howard Government health minister, praised the “spectacularly successful” efforts of NSW.

“There’s a great challenge for the Victorian Government to show leadership here, and NSW has shown that leader- ship in this area can make an enormous difference,” he said.

Victorian Health Minister Bronwyn Pike said the rise in HIV notifications was concerning and authorities would have to examine ways of spreading the safe-sex message. The State Government announced an extra $2.7 million in funding for HIV and other STIs in October.

But the money still hasn’t been allocated because tendering is under way.

The executive director of the Australian Federation of AIDS organisations, Don Baxter, said the NSW Government had taken action to reduce new HIV infections as soon as the numbers started to rise.

However, the Victorian Government had been slow in allocating new funding.