Reaching the Most Vulnerable Populations: A Health and Human Rights Imperative

Debbie McMillan of Transgender Health Empowerment speaking at the Thursday plenary, XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) Washington DC. © IAS/Steve Shapiro - Commercialimage.net

Debbie McMillan of Transgender Health Empowerment speaking at the Thursday plenary. XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) Washington DC — as delegates wearing “Statue of Liberty” crowns listen. © IAS/Steve Shapiro – Commercialimage.net

Related Reading: Listening, Learning from Marginalized Populations (via Storify)

After three days of plenaries — complete with scientists and rock stars, challenges and solutions, and a call for focusing on women and girls — the day four plenary focused on some of the most vulnerable, marginalized, and at-risk populations: men who have sex with men (MSM), sex workers, injection drug users, and transgendered people.

Men Who Have Sex with Men

Paul Semugoma of the Global Forum on MSM and HIV opened Thursday’s plenary with the stark facts about men who have sex with men (MSM). Semugoma urged delegates to “move from being friendly to MSM to being competent in getting them care.”

MSM are at particular risk of HIV, sexually-transmitted infections (STI), and high viral load partners. “If you don’t ask about sexual orientation in the examining room, then you don’t know the patient is high risk. Health workers are uniquely placed gate keepers, but when they don’t know about MSM, they are blind.”

Interventions needed to decrease HIV risk in MSM include: behavioral change, pre-exposure prophylaxis, condoms, and antiretroviral therapy (ART). MSM also are affected by criminalization and targeted by stigma.

Semugoma issued an urgent call to action to end invisibility of MSM in the epidemiology, service delivery, and decisionmaking. We must “take our heads out of the sand,” Semugoma implored. “We cannot achieve an AIDS-free generation without MSM. We need to fight stigma, ignorance, and stand in solidarity with colleagues who are beaten or killed for advocating for MSM, such as David Kato in Uganda.”

No drug users? No sex workers? No international AIDS conference

Cheryl Overs at the Thursday plenary, XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) Washington, DC. © IAS/Steve Shapiro - Commercialimage.net

Cheryl Overs at the Thursday plenary, XIX International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2012) Washington, DC. © IAS/Steve Shapiro – Commercialimage.net

People distributed green Styrofoam “Statue of Liberty” crowns along with signs stating: “No drug users? No sex workers? No internat’l AIDS conference” as Cheryl Overs of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, and a researcher from Melbourne, Australia, began speaking.

Drug users and sex workers have been banned from attending the XIX International AIDS conference due to travel restrictions currently in place in the US.

Overs spoke about the social exclusion, rejection, poverty, and lack of information facing sex workers. HIV tests can often lead to criminal prosecution of sex workers and sex workers have less rights and less choice. “The HIV epidemic is being fueled by repression,” said Overs. “The greatest threat to the health and human rights of sex workers is the inability to find a safe place to work.”

She showed a video taken of a “rescue” of sex workers and said these raids ignored the agony and the rights of the sex workers. “We need a law that gets commercial sex out of dangerous places and into safer ones.” She urged sex work to be made legal and called on governments to make the decision to do this — “the decision is free”.

She cited networks of sex workers helping other sex workers. “We need meaningful participation. Sex workers represent ‘real life’ — not epidemiological categories.” She called for a repeal of the PEPFAR Anti-Prostitution Pledge and for a revision to laws so that sex workers could legally enter the US.

Nothing About Us, Without Us

Debbie McMillan, risk counseling specialist at Transgender Health Empowerment, began by showing videotaped remarks from sex workers and injection drug users gathered in Calcutta and Kiev, because they were barred from entering the US to attend the conference. “We are all human beings, we all have rights.” Lifting the travel ban was not an achievement but a mistake that was fixed, she said.

Debbie is a transgender African-American woman who used to be a drug user and sex worker. She is convinced she contracted HIV in prison. She said that she represents people at the “height of the crisis” that should be included in the programs and conferences.

“I went to the street at age 14 and became a commercial sex worker because I thought it was the only place for someone like me. I got high to dull the reality.” She cited clean syringe programs as a key component to fighting HIV.

“My mother was the only person who completely accepted me. She had 1 cup, 1 fork, 1 spoon, 1 plate. At some point she got infected with HIV and died of complications from AIDS. I had to view my mother’s body while in shackles and handcuffs. Two months later, I was diagnosed with HIV at 20 years old.”

There is no bedside manner from health professionals for transgender people, noted McMillan. The Object Bridge LGBT Program for HIV people saved her life.

“I don’t want to be an outsider looking in. I collaborate with my peers in Calcutta and Kiev because they can’t be here. We need to have a conference where all can participate. Nothing about us, without us.”

Going Beyond 15 Million on Treatment by 2015

Gottfried Hirnschall, Director of HIV at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Switzerland, said that getting 15 million on treatment by 2015 was achievable and noted antiretroviral therapy (ART) scale-up successes in Rwanda, Malawi and Cambodia. He also noted that the evidence is now tipping toward earlier initiation of ART and said it has proven cost-effective.

Hirnschall said we need to work now to aaddress gaps for future scale-up, including considering Option B+, “test, treat and retain” method. He also noted the importance of provider initiated testing and counselling.

4 thoughts on “Reaching the Most Vulnerable Populations: A Health and Human Rights Imperative

  1. Pingback: Focusing on the Most Vulnerable, At Risk Populations: Storify | Management Sciences for Health at AIDS 2012

  2. Pingback: Turning the Tide After AIDS 2012: Moving Toward an AIDS-Free Generation Together

  3. Pingback: Turning the Tide After AIDS 2012: Moving Toward an AIDS-Free Generation Together | Management Sciences for Health at AIDS 2012

  4. People living with the disease, for whatever reason they may have contacted it, have a right to be a apart of the decisions on what happens to them. There can be more success in whatever is planned when those who the plans are for, are a part of the plans.

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