Empowering Women to Take Control of their Sexual Health

Two weeks ago, I attended a powerful and motivating summit hosted by Florida International University (FIU) Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work on empowering women to take control of their sexual health through knowledge of biomedical HIV prevention methods, connecting to community resources, and mobilizing key community stakeholders and providers.

What was most unique about this summit was the rawness of the various conversations. These conversations included voices of state congresswoman Frederica Wilson and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, community women and activists, a panel of diverse physicians and nurse practitioners, researchers, and LGBT and minority women working across different sectors in the HIV prevention field. When it comes to empowering women surrounding their sexual health, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is viewed as the driving vehicle. The problem is that there is a lack of awareness among women particularly LGBT and minority women, and providers about PrEP and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). During the engaging providers panel comprised of various physicians working in South Florida, a Haitian physician expressed that before the conference he decided to call several of his provider friends that practice within the local Haitian community and asked them if they have heard of PrEP. How many do you think said, “Of course, I know about PrEP”? The answer is…0. Not one single doctor whom was asked said they have heard of PrEP. We have a lot left to do. The work has not yet been done!

Miami’s HIV Epidemic

So maybe you are wondering…well why host this conference? The county of Miami-Dade continues to lead the nation in new HIV infections. Not too far away is the neighboring county of Broward which continues to compete with Miami when it comes to high prevalence rates as well.

Due to the rising rates of HIV in Miami-Dade County, city officials have responded to the epidemic with the development of a “Getting to Zero” task force comprised of city commissioners and individuals representing various public health agencies throughout Miami-Dade County as well as the state of Florida. The task force devised a multi-pronged action plan with priority goals for the next two years. The plans include to (1) reduce the rates of reported AIDS cases, (2) reduce the percentage of newly diagnosed HIV cases among residents aged 13-19 (3) increase the percentage of newly identified HIV-infected persons who are linked to care within 90 days of diagnosis and are receiving appropriate preventive care and treatment services in Miami-Dade County and (4) reduce the number of newly reported HIV cases in Miami-Dade County (http://www.miamidade.gov/releases/2016-09-29-mayor-getting-to-zero.asp).

Prep around the globe

PrEP has served as a vehicle for prevention and is being used worldwide. Countries such as the United States has large scale PrEP programs while others are still in the stages of development and some have not implemented as of yet. There has been many PrEP initiatives enacted. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) is currently supporting 5 Microbicide Product Introduction Initiative (MPii) projects in Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Uganda from 2015-2020 focused on gender-based violence, drug resistance, creating demand, introducing new products, and models for delivering services. Another program is the DREAMS (Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe) initiative, a collaborative effort between US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Girl Effect, Johnson & Johnson, Gilead Sciences and ViiV Healthcare. DREAMS aims to reduce the incidence of HIV by 40% among adolescent girls and young women by 2020 in the highest HIV burden countries including Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Of the 10 countries, 5 have included PrEP for adolescent girls and young women in their strategic plans to address HIV. Recent data from PEPFAR shows significant declines in new HIV diagnoses among adolescent girls and young women. In the 10 African countries implementing PEPFAR’s DREAMS partnership, the majority of the highest HIV-burden communities or districts achieved greater than a 25 percent–40 percent decline in new HIV diagnoses among young women (https://www.usaid.gov/what-we-do/global-health/hiv-and-aids/technical-areas/dreams). In other areas of the globe such as Latin America and the Caribbean, a combination of biomedical, structural, and behavioral interventions is greatly needed in order to reach target objectives and goals and ultimately increase HIV prevention efforts. I am excited to see the future of PrEP.

Women’s Perspectives

During the women’s perspectives breakout sessions, workshops were broken down into specific focus groups including African American, Latina and Haitian. Amongst the African American women breakout session, some key topics that were addressed included stigma, specifically communication between the medical provider and client such as clear language on how to ask questions during the appointment while also considering time constraints, policy, and the need for funding toward effective behavioral interventions for HIV negative black women in the community.

Sistas Organizing to Survive (SOS) is a grassroots mobilization of black women in the fight against HIV and AIDS. In Florida, one in 68 non-Hispanic black women are known to be living with HIV/AIDS and has been the leading cause of death among black women aged 25-44 years within the state. (http://www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/aids/administration/minority-initiatives.html)

Call to Action

Miami is the #1 city in the United States with new HIV infections. This is a huge public health issue. We have a call to action to advocate for ourselves and others when it comes to ending the epidemic. We have made significant strides, but the work has not yet been done. Sexual health including HIV prevention should be something that we freely discuss with our family, colleagues, peers, physicians, and anyone that we come in contact with that is willing to listen. It is these conversations that we can decrease stigma surrounding HIV. Women across the counties of Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach have answered the call to action by organizing and advocating for all women. We have accepted the call to action together that we can get Miami to Zero!

“A future where new HIV infections are rare, and when they do occur, every person, regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or socio-economic circumstance will have unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination.”

–Quote from the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Updated to 2020: Strategy Vision

For additional information, please visit http://www.who.int/hiv/topics/prep/en/ http://amp4health.org/ and http://getting2zeromiami.com/

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Access to PrEP under NHS England: My trip to London

Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) is a way to prevent HIV infection for people who do not have HIV but who are at high risk of getting it by taking the pill everyday. When someone is exposed to HIV through sex or injection drug use, PrEP can work to keep the virus from establishing a permanent infection. Individuals who take 7 PrEP pills per week, have an estimated level of protection of 99%. It is a powerful prevention tool combined with condoms.

In the United States, PrEP became available in 2012 by the FDA and can be accessed in most clinics and hospitals and is free under most insurance plans. As of 2017, there are an estimated 136,000 people currently on the drug for HIV prevention. This is not the case in the United Kingdom. As a part of a research project for my MPH degree I traveled to London, England to meet with members from the LGBT community, advocates and public health professionals and to learn more about access to PrEP under the National Healthcare System (NHS) England. Currently, PrEP is not available under NHS England even though HIV continues to be a prevalent problem in England, namely among men who have sex with men (MSM) where approximately 54% of the total of MSM population were diagnosed in 2015. England is however enrolling 10,000 people over 3 years through the PrEP IMPACT trial.

Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland are also a component of the NHS. Wales has commenced their PrEPared Wales project, which provided information on where to access PrEP in the country. Scotland is currently the only country in the UK that offers a full PrEP provision through their NHS. Northern Ireland currently has no provision of PrEP.

The NHS is widely regarded as a remarkable system, allowing UK citizens to access certain free healthcare services. England has had some shortcomings however when it comes to preventing HIV and I was interested in learning more. I visited the Terrance Higgins Trust (THT), a British charity that campaigns on and provides services relating to HIV and sexual health. In particular, they aim to end the transmission of HIV in the UK, to support people living with HIV (PLWH), and decrease stigma around HIV. I met Greg Owen, the founder of iWantPrEPNow, a website that explains why it is important for HIV protection, who might consider PrEP, what you need to do before you start, where to buy it online, and how to take it. I also met with Will Nutland, who works alongside Greg and is the founder of Prepster, a guide and movement to safely buying PrEP. Both websites have experienced a lot of traffic since the IMPACT Trial began in October 2017. The trial seems like a step in the right direction when it comes to accessing PrEP, this is not the attitude for many and there continues to be a debate.  While there is significant evidence from other trials that demonstrates PrEP is an effective HIV prevention tool, many people believe that NHS will not endorse PrEP after the trial is complete.

I asked Liam Beattie, also a member of the THT team, why he believes NHS England did not endorse PrEP under its guidelines. He believed that it was because of 1. homophobia among the NHS and 2. the media. Liam was recently interviewed on BBC News. During the interview, PrEP was categorized as a “controversial drug,” which paints a negative light on the topic from the get-go.  While England is well-developed and progressive in so many ways, HIV is still known as the “middle-aged gay male virus.” THT and other organizations continue to develop new marketing tools and programs in order to target women, transgender persons, and people of color to visit a sexual health clinic and get tested. Taking PrEP is an advantage for not only the individuals health but the overall cost of healthcare. Many are hopeful that in the future, the NHS will work with organizations like THT to promote PrEP and other educational resources to prevent HIV.

Did you know condoms are considered immoral in some countries?

Condoms have been around since 1855. Crazy, right? Not so long ago, one of the main purposes of condoms was to protect soldiers in World War II against STI’s. Not a lot of things have changed since then. There’s actually more and more reasons now why condoms are useful- it is accessible, it does not have side effects, it lowers risk of STI’s and HIV, and does not change the menstrual cycle like birth control does. That being said, there are several countries in the world that believe condoms and contraceptives are immoral. The below countries and its leaders blast condom use as dangerous. Their anti-condom rhetoric is bringing down youth and many others and could ultimately hurt the world. Continue reading “Did you know condoms are considered immoral in some countries?”

Improving LGBT Health Education in South Africa: Addressing the Gap

I first became interested in the topic of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) health care and health education while working as a country lead for the Presidential Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). During my time there I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and understand their community and health care system a bit better, with an emphasis on their HIV/AIDS epidemic. This post focuses on the LGBT history in South Africa, recent developments, addressing that there is a gap between homophobia and non-judgmental care, and the importance of health care workers understanding LGBT health education.

More and more countries around the world are opening their arms to welcome and embrace LGBT pride. South Africa has one of the world’s more progressive constitutions which legally protects LGBT people from discrimination, although current research indicates that they continue to face discrimination and homophobia in many different facets of life. The most recent milestone occurred in 2006 when the country passed a law to recognize same-sex marriages. Nevertheless, LGBT South Africans particularly those outside of the major cities, continue to face some challenges including conservative attitudes, violence, and high rates of disease. As the country continues to grow there seems to be an increase in LGBT representation (with approximately 4,900,000 people identifying as LGBT) whether it is through activism, tourism, the media and society or support from religious groups. So, what about LGBT health education? Continue reading “Improving LGBT Health Education in South Africa: Addressing the Gap”

Policy on #HIV related travel restrictions adopted by @WFPHA_FMASP at #WCPH2017 now posted

After APHA adopted its permanent policy statement on HIV-related immigration restrictions that we submitted at last year’s Annual Meeting, the IH Section worked with APHA’s WFPHA liaison, Dr. Deborah Klein-Walker, to submit a corresponding policy proposal on behalf of APHA to the World Federation of Public Health Associations, which held its 15th World Congress on Public Health this month in Melbourne, Australia. The proposal was accepted and passed by the WFPHA Policy Committee at the meeting, and has now been posted the website (PDF). The text of the policy (excluding references) is below.

Scientific evidence and treatment needed to combat the spread of HIV – not ineffective travel bans

Submitted by the American Public Health Association
(Contact person D. Walker)

Introduction
HIV-related restrictions against entry, stay, and residence remain common around the world. Various countries have policies that mandate HIV testing of all or certain groups of foreign nationals as a condition of obtaining a visa for employment. These policies have no basis in science and violate migrant workers’ human rights to confidentiality and informed consent to testing, exposing them to exploitation by their employers. According to UNAIDS, 35 countries currently have official HIV-related travel restrictions. Furthermore, HIV-related travel restrictions against foreign nationals have been shown by international treaty bodies, international legal scholars, and human rights organizations to constitute discrimination based on race, ethnicity, and/or country of origin.

Scope and Purpose
Restrictions on travel, immigration, or residence related to HIV status are a violation of the principles of nondiscrimination and equal treatment in all international human rights laws, treaties, and agreements. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to equal protection under the law, free from discrimination based on race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status, and the UN Commission on Human Rights has determined that this includes discrimination based on health status, including HIV infection. According to the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, while international human rights law allows governments to restrict rights in cases of emergency or serious public concern, the restrictions must be the minimum necessary to effectively address the concern – and HIV-related travel restrictions have been overwhelmingly ruled as both overly intrusive and ineffective public health policy. Within such restrictions, compulsory HIV testing is a serious violation of numerous human rights principles, including the right to bodily integrity and dignity. The accompanying deportation and/or loss of employment and residency status of HIV-infected migrants that frequently accompanies such testing violates the rights of PLWHA to privacy, work, and appropriate medical care. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has specifically stated that neither HIV tests nor private HIV-related personal information should be required of employees or job applicants.

Despite this robust evidence base, according to UNAIDS, 35 countries currently have official HIV-related travel restrictions openly acknowledged and enforced by the government. These restrictions vary from outright entry bans, which bar PLWHA from entering the country, to restrictions on stays longer than a specified period of time or to obtain employment visas or residency status. Others have inconsistent policies and/or intentionally misrepresent their policies with HIV-related restrictions. Such policies and practices, and the number of migrants impacted by them, are difficult to track because of differing or ambiguous definitions and a lack of data. Some of the most restrictive policies subject immigrants to mandatory HIV testing, either when applying for residency or for an employment visa, which is frequently required by states for legal residency.

The two primary justifications provided by governments for mandatory HIV tests for migrant workers and other HIV-related travel restrictions are to protect public health and reduce the cost burden on the country’s healthcare system imposed by providing HIV care services to foreign nationals. While countries have the right to employ measures to protect their populations from communicable diseases of public health concern, HIV is not transmitted by casual contact, meaning there is no scientific basis for attempting to control its spread via immigration policies. Furthermore, countries that do not have HIV-related travel restrictions have not reported any negative public health consequences compared to those that do, and recent analysis suggests that even migration from countries with generalized HIV epidemics does not pose a public health risk to destination countries.

In fact, immigration policies banning or restricting entry or employment based on HIV status often have the opposite effect of their protective intention, causing direct harm to the health of both of immigrants and citizens. They marginalize PLWHA, regularly discourage people from accessing HIV testing and treatment, and reinforce stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes against PLWHA in the general population. Regulations requiring HIV tests of immigrants can promote the idea that foreigners are dangerous to the national population and a public health risk, as well as creating a false sense of security by reinforcing the notion that only migrants are at risk for infection. Additionally, such attitudes can adversely impact the host country’s own HIV epidemic, as citizens who are unaware of their HIV-positive status, underestimating their own HIV risk and avoiding testing due to stigmatization, are more likely to transmit the virus to others, driving up infection rates.

State-enforced HIV screening of migrants costs far more than it saves in treatment costs. Screening travelers and migrants for HIV is impractical and expensive.[5][13][19] Labor migrants (both regular and undocumented) bring significant economic benefits to their host countries, in addition to themselves, and this cost-benefit balance remains even when migrants are HIV-positive and rely on the host country’s health care system for treatment and support.

Fields of Application:

  • National public health associations and their members
  • Human rights and HIV advocacy groups
  • UNAIDS
  • The World Federation of Public Health Associations

Action Steps:

The WFPHA joins with UNAIDS, the World Health Assembly, and other HIV and human rights organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, ILO) to call on all countries that still maintain and/or enforce HIV-related restrictions on entry, stay, or residence to eliminate such restrictions, ensuring that all HIV testing is confidential and voluntary and that counseling and medical care be available to all PLWHA within its borders, including migrants and foreign nationals.

The WFPHA affirms the following principles:

  • All people have the right to confidential and voluntary HIV testing and counseling.
  • Persons living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) have the right to privacy, to work, and to appropriate medical care.
  • All HIV-related travel and immigration restrictions currently in place should be removed.
  • Agencies and businesses who employ foreign nationals should not use HIV tests as a means to discriminate against potential employees.
  • Governments should provide HIV prevention and treatment services that are equally accessible to citizens and foreign nationals.
  • Migrant workers should have access to culturally appropriate HIV prevention and care programs in languages that they can understand.

The WFPHA recommends that:

  1. Public health associations in every country should:
    1. Develop policies opposing HIV-related travel restrictions;
    2. Document and/or support human rights and HIV advocacy groups in documenting immigration policies that explicitly discriminate, or allow employers to discriminate, against migrants based on HIV status;
    3. Document and/or support human rights and HIV advocacy groups in documenting any HIV testing practices that are not voluntary or confidential;
    4. Inform their members and the public that HIV-related travel restrictions and compulsory HIV testing of foreign nationals is a violation of human rights and does not protect public health or reduce health care costs; and
    5. Advocate for the removal of any and all HIV-related travel restrictions enforced or condoned by their country governments.
  2. UNAIDS should take steps to ensure that its protocols to research and investigate countries’ HIV-related travel restrictions are sufficiently thorough by monitoring and documenting any reported instances of HIV-related discrimination targeting immigrants, particularly when presented with evidence demonstrating that recognition of a country’s removal of HIV-related travel restrictions is unwarranted, in order to ensure that governments are not able to misrepresent their policies in order to gain undeserved recognition for supporting human rights with regard to HIV/AIDS.

WFPHA supports the removal of all HIV-related travel restrictions and travel related mandatory testing.