WASHINGTON – Ensuring that injections are safe and blood transfusions are not contaminated are cheap methods to prevent AIDS in Africa relative to the overall amount spent there to fight the disease,a Senate committee was told Thursday.
Sen. Jeff Sessions,R-Ala.,said that,despite contradictory data about the percentage of African AIDS patients who are infected by injections or blood transfusions instead of by unprotected sex,swift action could save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.
“This is a life and death matter,” Sessions said. “We're going to have to act without absolute clarity on some of these issues.”
Sessions praised President Bush’s proposal to spend $15 billion to fight AIDS in Africa but said that it is important to focus on what methods will work against the disease.
The World Health Organization says that about 2.5 percent of HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa are due to contaminated injections,said Dr. Yvan Hutin,a medical officer for WHO.
Sessions questioned the number,citing testimony from Dr. David Gisselquist,a researcher who has written about AIDS in medial journals. In a March 27 hearing,Gisselquist said that 48 percent of infections were associated with injections.
Hutin said that WHO number may be conservative,but the actual percentage is trivial. WHO has concluded it is a smart investment to provide enough resources for safe injections even if the percentage is below 2.5 percent.
He said WHO estimates that $44 million a year will be needed for safe injections,which could also prevent the spread of other diseases rampant in Africa such as hepatitis B and C.
“Infections acquired in 2000 alone are expected to lead to an estimated 9 million years of life lost,adjusted for disability,between 2000 and 2030,” Hutin said.
He said Africa collects only 40 percent of the blood needed for transfusions,and half of that blood is not tested for HIV and other diseases.
A new system of blood transfusion in Kenya,instituted after the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi,was effective in providing safe blood to victims of a terrorist attack in Mombassa,said Dr. Anne Peterson,an assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development,in a written statement.
Holly Bukhalter,director of U.S. policy for the Physicians for Human Rights,an advocacy group,said the United States should urge that each African country applying for money to fight AIDS have a safe health care provision in its budget.
She said some people fear an emphasis on better health care could harm efforts to promote safe sex as a preventive for disease.
“I can't see why African governments can't do what our government and other western governments have done,which is,of course,both,” Bukhalter said.
Sessions raised the possibility of the United States leading an international effort to bring about dramatic changes in safe health care for Africa.
“Should we light up,get serious,have a generalized conference on this issue and encourage every leader in every African nation to introduce dramatic changes?” Sessions asked the panel.
Peterson said that AID is already active in bringing about change. AID,along with WHO,has developed single-use syringes and is developing systems for safely disposing of contaminated needles.
The U.S. contribution to the Vaccine Fund,which gives clean immunizations to children in the world's poorest areas,has increased from $48 million in 2001 to $58 million this year.
Another problem with injections is that many are unnecessary. Hutin said 16 billion shots are given every year in developing countries,or 3.4 shots per person. Many times a shot is given when a pill would work just as well,Hutin said.
After receiving a shot at a clinic,many patients in Uganda take their syringes home and share them with their families and neighbors,said Dr. John Kiwanuka Ssemakula,a native Ugandan. He urged the international community not to worry about percentages and deliver the tools to fight AIDS quickly.