Uganda adopts circumcision, finds science works

This is no real surprise:

The growing uptake of medical male circumcision by men in the Rakai district of Uganda is leading to a substantial reduction in HIV incidence among men in one of the districts of the country worst affected by HIV, Xiangrong Kong of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI 2015) in Seattle, USA, on Thursday…

The study found that circumcision coverage in non-Muslim men increased from 9% during the Rakai circumcision study to 26% by 2011, four years after the trial concluded. Every 10% increase in circumcision coverage was associated with a 12% reduction in HIV incidence (0.88, 95% confidence interval 0.80-0.96).

HIV incidence reduction in women lags behind but is expected to catch up in coming years.

We’ve known for the better part of the past decade that circumcision literally saves lives by acting as a high efficacy vaccine that reduces female-to-male HIV transmission by 60% (which is better than the flu vaccine most years). That we’re seeing the positive results of implementing it as a policy isn’t surprising. Science just works.

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Humans may have left Africa sooner than once thought

I said my views on evolution are always evolving. This is a good example of that.

Modern humans may have left Africa thousands of years earlier than previously thought, turning right and heading across the Red Sea into Arabia rather than following the Nile to a northern exit, an international team of researchers says.

Stone tools discovered in the United Arab Emirates indicate the presence of modern humans between 100,000 and 125,000 years ago, the researchers report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science.

While science has generally accepted an African origin for humans, anthropologists have long sought to understand the route taken as these populations spread into Asia, the Far East and Europe. Previously, most evidence has suggested humans spread along the Nile River valley and into the Middle East about 60,000 years ago.

“There are not many exits from Africa. You can either exit” through Sinai north of the Red Sea or across the straits at the south end of the Red Sea, explained Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the Center for Scientific Archaeology of Eberhard-Karls University in Tuebingen, Germany.

“Our findings open a second way which, in my opinion, is more plausible for a massive movement than the northern route,” he said in a telephone briefing.

These findings are always interesting, but it takes so much evidence to come to any sort of conclusion that the theories put forth are always so tentative. We can say humans probably left Africa earlier than previously thought, but speculation on a new route is less solid.

One recent theory I recall hearing is that humans and Neanderthals once interbred. There is some evidence for it, and just last year some good DNA evidence was uncovered showing as much. In fact, I would go so far as to confidently proclaim that the evidence solidly shows humans interbred with Neanderthals very early in the human exit from Africa. Beyond that, I very much doubt there was interbreeding; the Neanderthals in all probability died out as a unique species, unable to breed with H. sapiens.

I mention this theory because the first thing that popped into my mind upon reading the first few paragraphs of the article was how long it would take until someone suggested Neanderthals may have been responsible for the toolmaking.

The techniques used to make the hand axes, scrapers and other tools found at Jebel Faya in Sharjah Emirate suggest they were produced by people coming from somewhere else, said Anthony E. Marks of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, adding that there are similar tools made about that time in East Africa.

“If these tools were not made by modern man, who might have made them?,” Marks asked. “Could Neanderthals have made them?”

Neanderthals were mainly in Europe and migrated into Russia but “there is no evidence for any Neanderthals south of that” zone at that time, he said. “To suggest one group of Neanderthals took a turn south and went several thousand kilometers … seems to me a very difficult explanation and one that doesn’t follow any reasonable logic.”

I have to agree with that assessment of the data. Humans moved towards Neanderthals, plausibly going through the areas of this recent discovery, not the other way around. Now that we have evidence left by our ancestors, this adds a new route humans took when leaving Africa. I find the scenario plausible, even likely. It still isn’t certain, but there is now some good evidence for it.

Religion continues to kill Nigerians

I’ve long been following the crisis in Nigeria. People have been murdering each other for quite some time there, with part of the basis being fertile farm land, part of it being poverty, part of it being government corruption, but the biggest part being religion. The most recent attacks reflect that.

Nigerian authorities on Friday arrested 92 people allegedly affiliated with a militant Islamist group that the government says is responsible for a string of recent killings in the country’s northeast.

Three men were arrested with bombs in their possession in the vicinity of Jos on Christmas Day, authorities said

The Jos region lies on a faith-based fault line between Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria and the mainly Christian south.

At least four people were killed and another 13 wounded Friday in a bomb blast at an army barracks in Abuja [on New Year’s eve], the deputy police commissioner said.

I would prefer not to have the perfect example to illustrate the point that religion causes divide and fosters violence, but it is what it is. Without Christianity and without Islam dividing the city of Jos, Nigerians would either be able to more easily resolve issues over farm land or they wouldn’t have any violence in the first place. (These most recent attacks are driven by extremists, but it remains that many of the other attacks have been over non-religious issues which are heightened and worsened by the presence of religion.)

Where religion is killing gays

Crazy, huh? The primary source of the hatred gays face in Africa, and especially Uganda, is fueled by religion.

The growing tide of homophobia comes at a time when gays in Africa are expressing themselves more openly, prompting greater media attention and debates about homosexuality. The rapid growth of Islam and evangelical forms of Christianity, both espousing conservative views on family values and marriage, have persuaded many Africans that homosexuality should not be tolerated in their societies.

“It has never been harder for gays and lesbians on the continent,” said Monica Mbaru, Africa coordinator for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, based in Cape Town. “Homophobia is on the rise.”

But surely this is just an extreme example, right? After all, we have far too much religion in the U.S. but we aren’t putting in place laws that kill gays. Except we’re setting the stage. We are telling gays – and the world – that being gay is morally wrong, that it is evil, and that gays do not deserve the same rights as everyone else. Still in so many states it is legal to fire a person for being gay. There are bigots (even on the Supreme Court) who support anti-sodomy laws. In fact, that purely political, non-legally minded ‘judge’ Scalia said this when he voted against striking down laws that specifically targeted gays:

Today’s opinion dismantles the structure of constitutional law that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions, insofar as formal recognition in marriage is concerned.

He was worried that by acknowledging that no government has any say over the sexual lives of two consenting, autonomous adults that gay marriage might become a reality. (He also noted that it can be said that any law targets a group, intentionally forgetting that gays constitute a group not defined by choice.)

It’s this sort of dictionary bigotry that is assisting in the primarily Christian and Muslim effort to destroy the lives of gays. In fact, it is American Christian groups that are largely behind the “Kill the Gays” bill in Uganda.

American gay activists have sent money to help the community here. Western governments – including aid donors – have vocally criticized the bill and denounced the treatment of gays.

That has angered conservative pastors here, many of whom are influenced by American anti-gay Christian groups and politicians who say that African values are under attack by Western attitudes. They say their goal is to change the sexual behavior of gays, not to physically harm them.

And does this sound familiar?

In Gambia, President Yahya Jammeh has vowed to expel gays from the country and urged citizens not to rent homes to them.

In addition to it being legal to fire gays in many U.S. states, it is also legal to refuse to rent to them. It was until just a few years ago that Maine finally passed a law which made it illegal to discriminate against gays in education, employment, housing, and other basic areas of life.

The plight of gays in Africa is the same plight of gays in America, especially in places like the south. By clinging to religion and irrationally proclaiming that gays do not deserve the exact same rights as everyone else, we are setting the stage for the discrimination, criminalization, and violence that they must face in Africa every single day.

Oh, but maybe this has nothing to do with True Religion, with the mainstream beliefs of Christians.

Oh wait:

In recent years, conservative American evangelical churches have had a profound influence on society in Uganda and other African nations. They send missions and help fund local churches that share their brand of Christianity. Sermons and seminars by American evangelist preachers are staples on local television and radio networks across the continent.

Some activists say the attacks in Uganda intensified last year after three American evangelical preachers visited the country. In seminars attended by thousands and broadcasted over radio, the preachers discussed how to “cure” homosexuality and accused gays of sodomizing boys and destroying African culture. A month later, a Ugandan lawmaker introduced the anti-homosexuality bill.

“The religious fundamentalists want to rule everyone. They want everyone to follow their religious agenda,” said Pepe Julien Onziema, a gay rights activist here.

Vatican shifts on condoms

The Vatican has finally started to move in the right direction concerning condom use.

In a seismic shift on one of the most profound — and profoundly contentious — Roman Catholic teachings, the Vatican said Tuesday that condoms are the lesser of two evils when used to curb the spread of AIDS, even if their use prevents a pregnancy.

The position was an acknowledgment that the church’s long-held anti-birth control stance against condoms doesn’t justify putting lives at risk.

“This is a game-changer,” declared the Rev. James Martin, a prominent Jesuit writer and editor.

The new stance was staked out as the Vatican explained Pope Benedict XVI’s comments on condoms and HIV in a book that came out Tuesday based on his interview with a German journalist.

The Vatican still holds that condom use is immoral and that church doctrine forbidding artificial birth control remains unchanged. Still, the reassessment on condom use to help prevent disease carries profound significance, particularly in Africa where AIDS is rampant.

It would be nice if the next time I go to Africa, my travel doctor doesn’t specifically tell me, “Don’t have sex with the locals.” That’s a long way from happening, but at least the Vatican is doing less to make that dream stay so distant.

Capturing the world

As usual, the wonderful writing over at Shambling After deserves recognition.

I lived in a little bubble of ignorant bliss and although I convinced myself that I was concerned with the rest of the world, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how much of the world there is to be concerned with.

This is about Cairo, but the same feeling found its way into me while I was in Africa. The constant dirt and abject poverty was something I expected, but it wasn’t something for which I was necessarily ready. I found myself often thinking, when people say they’re suffering, when they say they have it bad, it’s all relative. The tiny villages of Tanzania have suffering, they have it bad. That isn’t to say there is nothing but misery there – the number of smiling children I saw astounded me – but it isn’t ice cream and video games. When black Americans say they can relate to their ‘home land’, I now have nothing but contempt for such statements. Just as when a white person says he can at all relate to being black in America, the claim would be risible if it wasn’t such a lie. And I’m not saying I can relate merely because of what I saw while I sat in a Range Rover with my hundreds of dollars worth of hiking equipment and Slim Jims. But I do at least know I can’t relate.

To steal the Samuel Johnson quote used at Shambling After,

The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.

Sunny cream

As my guide in Africa frequently said, bring much sunny cream. It’s going to protect against both sunburns and cancer. (Get the stuff with UVB and UVA protection.)

If anyone is wondering, yes, I’ve been trawling a few random naturopath sites. I find it extremely disheartening that these evil little quacks are so eager to increase the rate of cancer by discouraging the use of sun lotion. I’m sure a few wouldn’t mind having more ‘patients’ to abuse financially, but I think the majority of them just hate science so much that they’re willing to do anything so long as it builds up their anti-science street cred among fellow quacks.