Eradicating HIV Requires More Than Medicine

Staff and clients of AJWS Haitian grantee SEROvie. The group’s banner reads, “Everyone should be able to live his life with respect and dignity.” (Photo: SEROvie)

With the International AIDS Conference right around the corner, there has been a flurry of articles about stemming the spread of HIV in the developing world. We have certainly made great strides, but many countries’ efforts to maximize access to HIV treatment do not always succeed. Botswana is one example. In the early 2000s, the country demonstrated commendable leadership and rolled out an ambitious plan to test and treat all Botswanans for HIV. But the number of people without access to treatment remained high. This was the result of a number of issues, including stigma. Former President Mogae said, “I’m very frustrated. Because of the stigma attached to this sexually transmitted virus, and because some religious people have said this is a curse or that those who have HIV are sinners, many are afraid to get tested.”

This cautionary tale contains lessons the rest of the world should heed. Even as we celebrate the scientific discoveries and treatment that dramatically reduce ongoing HIV transmission and death, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that a biomedical solution can overcome the devastating effects of social prejudice and bigotry. These effects exacerbate human rights abuses and prevent people who are most vulnerable from accessing life-saving services.

For more than a decade, we have had the wherewithal to drastically reduce vertical HIV transmission and transmission due to unsafe sex or injecting drug use (IDUs). Data demonstrates that our methods of prevention and treatment are effective. But the rates of HIV transmission among society’s most marginalized people—women, sex workers, IDUs, men who have sex with men (MSMs), and transgender people—remain unacceptably high. Youth, especially in these marginalized communities, remain vulnerable to HIV and are at higher risk due to stigma and a lack of public health information. For this reason, AJWS provides resources to organizations that transmit critical information about HIV and expand access to HIV services for adolescent girls, women, sex workers, IDUs and sexual minorities. Here are a few examples of the organizations we support:

In Haiti, SEROvie runs an HIV and AIDS support program for sexual minorities—one of the only programs of its kind available for LGBT Haitians.

In India, SAATHI aims to improve the well being of Hijras, Maichiyas and other male-to-female transgender people to reduce their vulnerability to HIV.

In Kenya, Carolina for Kibera runs a sexual reproductive health program for youth, and trains young adult educators to teach adolescents about protecting themselves from HIV and AIDS.

Certainly, medical advances are essential for stemming the spread of HIV. But if we intend to eradicate the pandemic for good, we must also work to end discrimination and human rights abuses that stymie our collective efforts for an AIDS-free world.