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Rumours of HIV in contraceptive spread panic

A woman near the market talks into her mobile phone, Zambia, March 2007. "The impact that mobile phones have on the developing world is as revolutionary as roads, railways and ports, increasing social cohesion and releasing the entrepreneurial spirit that
(Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

A public health scare sparked by allegations that batches of the injectible contraceptive, Depro-Provera, contained the HI virus has exposed deep mistrust and high levels of misinformation about the safety of imported drugs.

Health department spokesperson Dr Canisius Banda said the allegation was made by a laboratory technician working at a public health clinic, who decided to test the hormone-based contraceptive for HIV after noticing that it was labelled 'for export only'.

Reports that the drug might contain HIV have created panic among Zambian women who receive three-monthly Depo-Provera shots to prevent pregnancy, prompting the Zambian government to withdraw the drug from public health facilities while it conducts its own tests.

Late last week, Health Minister Dr Brian Chituwo announced that tests had so far found no trace of the HI virus, and said "It should also be noted that HIV cannot survive in ... a non-life-sustaining environment." He explained that the 'for export only' labels were for tax control purposes and did not indicate the drug was of inferior quality.

Christopher Wurst, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Zambia also emphasised Depo-Provera's safety. "Like all drugs distributed by the US government, [Depo-Provera] must meet the standards of the US Food and Drug Administration ... rumours about Depo-Provera contamination are simply based on invalid lab tests," he said.

Zambia has become a fertile ground for such rumours after a genuine case of contaminated drugs reaching consumers last year. The Swiss company, Roche, recalled its antiretroviral drug, Viracept, from several countries, including Zambia, after several batches of the drug were found to contain a potentially harmful contaminant.

In August 2007 the South African government had to recall 20 million condoms after revelations that an employee at the country's quality-assurance and standards body had accepted money from a manufacturer in return for certifying defective condoms.

''They say HIV is something that people created to eliminate the black race.''

In several other African countries, however, health programmes have been sabotaged by misinformation: in northern Nigeria religious leaders derailed efforts to vaccinate children against polio by suggesting the vaccine was laced with agents causing AIDS and sterility. As a result, three northern Nigerian states suspended polio vaccination in 2004 and in some areas uptake is still low.

In Zambia, as in many other countries, distrust of foreign medicines and health initiatives have combined with persistent rumours about the 'real' origins of HIV. "They say [HIV] is something that people created to eliminate the black race," Raphael Phiri of Family Health Trust, a local non-governmental organisation, told IRIN/PlusNews. "In my view, people don't have very accurate information about these things."

"It seems there's this wind of suspicion because there exists in the world biological warfare," commented Zambian health department spokesperson Dr Banda. "So awareness levels have gone up in the communities and they want assurance that these products we're giving them will not harm them."

Banda explained that according to Zambian law, all drugs entering the country have to have been approved for safety at their point of origin or by the World Health Organisation. Zambia has limited capacity to conduct its own safety tests on imported drugs. "At the moment we only test just over 40 products, and Depo[-Provera] wasn't one of them," he said.

The Planned Parenthood Association of Zambia, which offers family planning services, has suspended the use of Depo-Provera until further notice. "Government has not yet given us any instructions, but have said it should be quarantined," Henry Kaimba, operations manager, told IRIN/PlusNews. "I think people have to be assured, and that assurance has to come from government."

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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