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HIV epidemic 'halted', says UN

The number of new HIV infections and deaths from Aids are falling globally, according to new statistics from the UN's programme on HIV/AIDS.

There are now signs the epidemic is declining, it says, however, stigma and discrimination continue to cause problems for the estimated 33m people living with HIV.

Last year there were 2.6m new HIV infections.

This is down almost 20% since the peak of the AIDS epidemic in 1999.

In 2009, 1.8m died from AIDS-related illnesses, down from 2.1m in 2004.

The report says rates of treatment using anti-retroviral drugs have risen from 700,000 in 2004 to over 5m people in 2009.

Sub-Saharan Africa continues to be the region most affected by the epidemic, with around 70% of all new HIV infections occurring here.

But infection rates are falling, particularly in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.

Michel Sidibe says the statistics show the spread of HIV has halted in some places.

There is a mixed picture in other parts of the world.

Eastern Europe and central Asia show sharp rises in new infections and AIDS-related deaths.

And the UN says bad laws and discrimination, particularly in respect to drug users and homosexuals, continue to hamper the fight against AIDS.

"We are breaking the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic with bold actions and smart choices," said Mr Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAids.

"Investments in the AIDS response are paying off, but gains are fragile - the challenge now is how we can all work to accelerate progress."

Source: BBC news 24 November 2010

Let's talk about sex differences. Again.

I have been writing about gender my whole professional life and I am tired of researchers repeating the same errors.

Of course there are differences. Take a photo of women and men in any moment in time, and, apart from those matters related to reproductive physiology, you will find average differences in, say, fondness for romance novels, vampire movies, power tools, and fistfights. When I was a student, the differences of interest were in such skills as "finger dexterity", which explained why women were better at typing and cooking; women's "raging hormones", which made them unfit for serious work or political office; and "fear of success", which explained why there weren't more women in the professions. Interest in finger dexterity vanished when men got their clumsy paws on keyboards and kitchen utensils, and fear of success was trampled to death by the crush of women entering professional schools, once discrimination became illegal.

There is a benefit to having written about sex differences your whole professional life: you get perspective. When I was growing up, no American woman had ever been an astronaut, a rabbi, a general, a supreme court justice, or secretary of state. Women were barely blips on the radar in law, medicine, business, bartending, insurance, police, engineering, and politics. There were no women's WCs in the US Senate. Men and women cheerfully claimed they'd never work for a woman boss or vote for a woman. Of course, some things were better when I was young; PMS hadn't been invented.

There is also a disadvantage to having written about sex differences your whole professional life: it makes you feel awfully old, having to read, over and over and over and over, yet another incarnation of the view that men and women's brains differ in structure and function, differences that explain why women are allegedly better at empathy and talking than men and men are better at maths and science. You tip your hat to the current generation of scholars – notably Cordelia Fine, with Delusions of Gender and Rebecca Jordan-Young, with Brain Storm: The flaws in the science of sex differences – and you are grateful that they have taken up the cudgel as you sigh: "Here we go again."

To be sure, the biomedical revolution has produced stunning brain-imaging technologies, revelations about the human genome, and fascinating discoveries in behavioural genetics. Few psychological scientists are still fighting the nature-or-nurture war. I remember how angry feminist scholars were in the 1970s with sociologist Alice Rossi's "biopsychosocial" model of parenting – we wanted the "bio" part out of there. But that battle is over; it's nature and nurture. Few scientists (or parents) believe that any child can become anything with the right environment; the child's own genetic predispositions have something to do with his or her personality and interests.

But if biology itself is not the enemy in the study of gender, biological reductionism still is. The latest version even has a name, "neurosexism", the use of new technology or the language of neuroscience to support old prejudices and stereotypes. I've been following the studies of sex differences in the brain for two decades now, and have yet to be persuaded that they mean much, because the investigators perpetuate the same errors.

First, the very differences in behaviour they wish to explain are stereotypes – "women are more empathic than men" – and then any sex differences that turn up on a brain scan are invoked to explain them. But empathy is not a fixed trait, like eye colour. It varies with the situation. When social psychologists observe men and women in different situations where they are given the chance to behave empathically or not, sex differences evaporate. Are women more empathic than men in their dealings with enemies or strangers? Don't count on it.

Second, even when investigators discover a small brain difference – say, that in some women, both sides of the brain light up while they are doing a puzzle, whereas in most men's, only one side does – they often ignore the fine print: the more important finding that the sexes didn't differ in their actual test performance.

Third, brains are as idiosyncratic as fingerprints, shaped and sculpted by their owners' experiences over time; yet most people want to hear that brain structure determines behaviour, not that behaviour affects brain structure. In terms of brain function, the overlap between the sexes is greater than any average difference between them. Yet it's the differences that get the attention, publicity – and funding.

Here, then, is the irony: in developed nations, where women fight in battle and men change nappies, the sexes are becoming more alike in their roles, jobs, motivations, and values placed on work and family; yet efforts to pinpoint some essential difference in the brain continue. In the many countries in which women are completely ruled by men, where even the attempt to attend school puts them in peril of their lives, sex "differences" are at their greatest. Can brain scans explain the dazzling pace of progress in some nations and the brutal oppression of women in others?

Worldwide, the greatest predictor of women's advancement in science is the extent to which they have equal access to education and careers, not which half of their brains lights up when they are doing a maths puzzle. That is a finding that has not changed in my lifetime, and I doubt that all the brain-scan studies being done today will change it in the future.

Source: Carol Tavris, comment guardian.co.uk,  23 November 2010

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Oral Sex Often Precedes Intercourse For Teens, Study Finds

Most high school students who have oral sex progress to vaginal intercourse within the next several months, according to a study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, Reuters reports.

Researchers Bonnie Halpern-Felsher of the University of California-San Francisco and Anna Song of UC-Merced surveyed more than 600 students in Northern California from 2002 to 2005 to evaluate sexual progression among teens. The students filled out questionnaires every six months from the start of ninth grade through the end of 11th grade.

Among students who had their first experience with oral sex in ninth grade, all but 9% had had vaginal sex by the end of 11th grade, the study found. Eighty percent of teens who had not had oral sex by the end of 11th grade also had not had vaginal sex.

Most teens said they had intercourse within or after the same six-month period as their first experience with oral sex. Teens largely tended to have oral sex before vaginal sex, rather than the opposite. The study revealed no differences in sexual progression between genders or races.

False Perceptions About Risks

The authors' previous research found that teens "perceived that oral sex was more acceptable and more prevalent compared to intercourse," Halpern-Felsher said. Many teens think that oral sex has fewer health consequences -- such as pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections -- and less social and emotional costs than vaginal sex, she added.

Sex education programs often ignore the role of oral sex in teens' sexual behavior, instead focusing on abstaining from intercourse and safer sex practices, according to Halpern-Felsher. The study's "findings highlight the need for health care providers, health educators and parents to include discussions of oral sex within a comprehensive sexual education curriculum," she said, adding, "Teens often do not consider oral sex to be sex, and thus might discount these messages as not applying or relevant to their own behaviors"

Source: Medical News Today, 5 November 2010

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Obama Sex Education Grants Draw Strong Reaction From Both Sides

The Obama administration's initiative to support evidence-based sex education programs has drawn a mix of praise and criticism from both sides of the "politically sensitive" debate. The initiative is one of several administration efforts designed to "defuse some of the nation's most divisive issues," in this case by aiming to appease advocates of comprehensive sex education, as well as those who support programs that focus on abstinence-only-until-marriage messages.
Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College, said, "This is one of those emotionally charged issues where it's very difficult to find compromise." She added, "It inevitably becomes entangled in a larger constellation of issues, such as abortion, that raise ideological, moral and religious questions."
In September, grants were awarded to 115 programs in 38 states and the District of Columbia for sex education programs, including $75 million to 75 groups to try to reproduce about 28 sex education programs that have been "proven effective through rigorous evaluation." Another 40 organizations were awarded HHS grants totaling $35 million to test "innovative strategies" in teen pregnancy prevention..
While many adolescent health experts have praised the initiative, it also has drawn criticism from advocates on both sides of the abstinence education debate. Opponents of abstinence-only programs have "expressed dismay" that HHS awarded more than $9.3 million in grants to 12 abstinence programs.
James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth said, "They are funding programs that censor information about condoms and birth control and have elements that are clearly ideological and not science-based." He also noted that the federal health reform law (PL 111-148) includes $50 million over five years for abstinence-only programs. The Obama administration is "stretching the limits so it can 'give something to the other side,'" Wagoner said, adding, "Young people will end up paying the price."
Source: Medical News Today, 29 October 2010
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On the problems of an Iraqi census

I've recently written about how the gutting of Statistics Canada's long-form census is an act of little value. Just recently, I came across an argument that made something of a case that it was a very good thing Iraq's unable to undertake a census at all. Reuters described the situation this January.

The long-delayed count, which may shut down the country for two days in October, is also expected to determine how many Iraqis live abroad and how many have been forced to move within Iraq in seven years of war, census chief Mehdi al-Alak said.

The census was postponed for a year over worries it was being politicized. Ethnic groups in contested areas like the northern city of Kirkuk, home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and a valuable part of Iraq's oil fields, opposed it because it might reveal demographics that would undermine political ambitions.

The count could provide answers or create more squabbles in a diverse nation riven by sectarian violence following the U.S. invasion in 2003 and now trying to bolster fragile security gains while deciding how to share out its vast oil wealth. Iraq has the world's 3rd largest crude oil reserves.

The autonomous Kurdish region in the north claims Kirkuk as its own. The census will determine whether Kurds are the biggest ethnic bloc in the city, which could bolster that claim.

It will also find out how many people live in Iraqi Kurdistan, which will define its slice of central government revenues, currently 17 percent. If the census finds Kurds are a greater percentage of the total population, the constitution says the region gets more money, and retroactive payments.

What it won't do, Alak said, is attempt to determine which of the hotly disputed areas belong to whom.

"It is not our business to decide their destiny," Alak, the head of the Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT), said in an interview this week. "We count the people in the province where they live. Deciding the destiny of the areas is the business of the politicians."

The census will be the first to include the Kurdish region since 1987. A 1997 census counted 19 million Iraqis and officials estimated there were another 3 million in the Kurdish north.

The current national population is believed to be "not less than 30 million," Alak said.

The census didn't happen, actually, for the reasons of ethnopolitical rivalry that Joel Wing described at his blog as well as the state's bureaucracy. Foreign Policy's Joost Hiltermann argued that, notwithstanding the census' importance in national planning, the census' failure was good inasmuch questions on ethnicity and language would be too polarizing.

The Iraqi census stands to play a critical role in the country's development. Its data will help in drawing electoral districts, allocating funds, projecting future population growth, and planning education, public health, housing, transportation, and other essential elements of a well-regulated state. Particularly in Iraq, which has witnessed several false starts in reconstruction following the 2003 invasion, having accurate socioeconomic data will be indispensable to sound economic planning.

But there's reason to believe that this census, as it is currently designed, will polarize rather than unify Iraqi society. The problem lies in a question that asks Iraqis to define their ethnicity, aiming to get a sense of how big the country's various ethnic groups are. Although such a question will no doubt provide interesting information for academics and analysts, it is not in Iraq's national interest and risks destabilizing some of Iraq's most sensitive hot spots.

The ethnicity question is particularly likely to inflame passions in areas that Kurdish leaders have said they want to incorporate into the federal Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. Along with Kurds, these areas are home to a diverse population of Arabs, Turkmens, and smaller minorities, all of which have been engaged in a tense standoff over Kurdish aspirations, which they resist almost unanimously. The situation holds the potential for violent conflict. Several incidents in these disputed areas over the past two years required U.S. commanders to establish joint military checkpoints along the so-called trigger line dividing Iraqi Army troops from Kurdish regional guards. Finding a negotiated solution to the tug of war over these areas, with the city of Kirkuk at their center, will be critical for Iraq's future.

All sides see the census's ethnicity question as a proto-referendum on these areas status. Everyone assumes that in a referendum Kurds would vote in favor of accession to the Kurdistan region while the vast majority of non-Kurds would vote against. If the population in a given area is found to be majority Kurdish, the political case for linking this area to the Kurdistan region will be greatly strengthened -- regardless of the wishes of the area's non-Kurdish population, whatever its size. The census, in other words, would increase the momentum toward a non-negotiated solution of these areas' status via an ethnically driven, zero-sum-game plebiscite. Going forward with the ethnicity question intact, then, would almost certainly lead to an Arab and Turkmen boycott, as well as popular protests in disputed territories, likely culminating in violence.

Even questions of language, obviously relevant for the provision of government services like education, should be dropped else the exercise create too many disputes for Iraq to survive.

There may be something to this argument. In Yugoslavia, the various republican and national censuses in the Communist era provided ample data for disputes over the direction of demographic changes and their import, helping to fuel various conflicts until, fittingly, the outbreak of war made the 1991 census a
partial one that excluded Kosovo and other parts of Yugoslavia on account of boycotts and conflict. I can't help but feel this parallel doesn't say good things about the survivability of Iraq, mind.
Posted by Randy at 2:40 AM
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Center for Reproductive Rights
Bojana Stoparic, bstoparic@reprorights.org (917) 637-3683

Abortion Opponents Undercut Council of Europe Resolution on Conscientious Objection

New York, NY – Today, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) undercut a resolution intended to regulate the use of conscientious objection by reproductive healthcare providers. The resolution did not pass as proposed and its provisions were severely diluted by a number of harmful anti-abortion amendments.

“It is truly a dismal day in Europe when the lives and health of women take a back seat to political agendas and ideological imperatives,” said Christina Zampas, regional manager and senior legal adviser for Europe at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “Today’s disappointing vote shows the growing political power of the anti-choice movement among both governments and civil society, as well as a lack of political commitment to women’s reproductive health by ostensibly pro-choice politicians.”

The resolution would have offered the first set of comprehensive guidelines from a regional or international body on how governments must balance a woman’s right to reproductive health and autonomy with an individual’s right to conscientious objection. In many member states of the Council of Europe, the practice of conscientious objection in the medical field is largely unregulated. As a result, healthcare providers deny women access to lawful reproductive health services based on moral or religious objections--severely impacting their health and lives. The PACE resolution as originally proposed recommended that governments develop comprehensive regulations and guarantee the right to conscientious objection only to individuals, not to public health facilities. They also recommended that public facilities provide patients with information on all of their medical options and treatment in cases of emergency regardless of an individual practitioner’s objections.

 “When a healthcare worker objects to providing legal reproductive services because of his or her conscience, it is imperative to a woman’s health and life that the government make sure that she can still get the services she needs and is legally entitled,” said Zampas, whose expertise helped draft a report presented to PACE on the unregulated use of conscientious objection.

In a number of European countries, including Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Croatia, there are laws requiring doctors to inform patients of any conscientious objection to a procedure and refer the patients to another provider, but there is no oversight mechanism. For example, the Center is currently working closely with the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning and the Warsaw University Law Clinic on a lawsuit against Poland in the European Court of Human Rights for the death of a woman who was refused treatment for colon disease because doctors feared it would harm the fetus. Edyta* was two months pregnant when she was diagnosed with the painful colon disease which was aggravated by her pregnancy. When she sought medical care in her Polish hometown and other cities, however, doctor after doctor refused to treat her illness because she was pregnant. They repeatedly expressed concern about the fetus, but none of them formally raised a moral or religious objection so they did not have to refer Edyta to a doctor that would treat her. Edyta’s symptoms grew worse until she miscarried and eventually, died. The lawsuit aims to ensure that Poland maintains enough healthcare workers who are willing to provide all legal health services and that patients get timely referrals. The suit also asks the court to prohibit hospitals and other institutions from invoking conscientious objection or using it to deny patients information or emergency care.

*The name used is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the family.

The Center for Reproductive Rights is a global legal organization dedicated to advancing women's reproductive health, self-determination and dignity as basic human rights.