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”

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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.

APHA Component letter to @UNAIDS: South Korea’s #HIV immigration restrictions

After two years, two APHA policy statements (one interim and one permanent), dozens of e-mails (and perhaps just as many drops of blood, sweat, and tears), and a few phone calls, we have finally sent a letter to UNAIDS urging it to revoke its recognition of South Korea’s status as a country without any HIV restrictions – until it actually produces and enforces policies that actually reflect that status.

Heartfelt thanks to Dr. Laura Altobelli, our Section Chair; Mona Bormet, our Advocacy/Policy Committee’s advocacy coordinator; and all of the Components who signed on to this hard-won letter (and the policy proposals that led up to it):

If there is one thing I have learned through this odyssey, it is that the work of advocacy is exhausting. It takes the old adage of “marathon not sprint” to a whole new level. The patience required to work within the boundaries, and according to the rules, of whatever framework you are trying to leverage to produce change can be maddening at times, but I suppose that is the inevitable price we pay to work with others. The larger your advocacy “vehicle” is, the more likely it is to be effective, but the more restrictions you have to work within. Or around, as the case may be.

On a more positive note, we also got a corresponding policy approved for adoption by the World Federation of Public Health Associations at their assembly (which kicked off today!). It will be posted here as soon as it is published, with potentially more letters to follow. Stay tuned.

The full text of the letter, followed by an embedded PDF, is below.

Dear Executive Director Dr. Michel Sidibé:

On behalf of the International Health Section of the American Public Health Association (APHA), we write to notify you of a new APHA policy statement, “Opposition to Immigration Policies Requiring HIV Tests as a Condition of Employment for Foreign Nationals,” which was adopted at the Association’s 2016 Annual Meeting.1 As you may know, APHA was founded in 1872 and is the oldest organization of public health professionals in the world. It has a long-standing commitment to promoting global health and protecting human rights, recognizing that these two go hand-in-hand.

HIV-related travel restrictions are recognized as a violation of human rights and have been well-established as ineffective at reducing the spread of HIV. Such policies further marginalize people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), discourage people from accessing HIV testing and treatment, and reinforce stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes against PLWHA in the general population. According to APHA’s policy statement, “[immigration] policies that mandate HIV testing of [foreign nationals] as a condition of obtaining a visa for employment…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.”

Increasing awareness of the harms of mandatory testing and accompanying pressure from multilateral institutions and human rights advocates has begun to prompt countries to lift travel bans and change their immigration policies. We recognize that UNAIDS has been instrumental in this effort and laud the organization both in its leadership on this initiative and the progress that it has made. APHA’s policy statement specifically cites the work of the UNAIDS International Task Team on HIV-related Travel Restrictions and notes that “[a]dvocacy efforts using [the Task Team’s findings] have resulted in several countries loosening these restrictions or, in some cases, dropping them entirely: the number was reduced from 59 to 45 countries in 2011 and, as of September 2015, to 35.” APHA’s policy statement calls on UNAIDS and others to “continue 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.” We urge UNAIDS to continue this work to make further progress in the remaining countries that enforce HIV travel restrictions.

The policy statement also recommends that “UNAIDS 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.”

One such example of misrepresentation of HIV-related immigration policy can be found with the Republic of Korea (ROK), which subjects foreign nationals applying for visas to work or study under several visa categories to mandatory HIV testing.2,3 Recent decisions by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination4 and the National Human Rights Commission of Korea5 both confirm the ongoing existence and enforcement of mandatory testing for E-2 visa applicants and recommend that they be struck down. Unfortunately, despite this discriminatory requirement, ROK representatives declared at the 2012 International AIDS Conference that their government had removed all HIV-related travel restrictions and, as a result, the country was granted “green” (restriction-free) status by UNAIDS6, while other states with HIV-related restrictions similar to those enforced by ROK7 are still classified as “yellow” on this map. This inconsistency in the application of UNAIDS’ assessment criteria could threaten the progress made on reducing HIV-related travel restrictions. We strongly urge UNAIDS to revoke ROK’s status as a country with no HIV-related travel restrictions until it eliminates all mandatory HIV testing policies.

Finally, we express our continued commitment to the UNAIDS goals of reducing HIV transmission, fortifying the rights of all who live with HIV/AIDS, and eliminating stigma and discrimination.

Sincerely,

Laura C. Altobelli, DrPH, MPH
Chair, International Health Section

Willi Horner-Johnson, PhD
Chair, Disability Section

Randolph D. Hubach, PhD, MPH
Chair, HIV/AIDS Section

Lea Dooley, MPH, MCHES
Chair, Population, Reproductive, and Sexual Health Section

Gabriel M. Garcia, PhD, MA, MPH
Chair, Asian Pacific Islander Caucus

Titilayo A. Okoror, PhD
Chair, Caucus on Refugee and Immigrant Health

Gabriel Galindo, DrPH, MPH, CHES
Chair, LGBT Caucus of Public Health Professionals

Benjamin Mason Meier, JD, LLM, PhD
Chair, Human Rights Forum


https://aphaih.files.wordpress.com/2017/04/apha-rok-hiv-travel-restrictions-letter.pdf

World AIDS Day & the need for SSPs

December 1st, 2016 marked World AIDS Day.  This year’s theme is “Leadership.  Commitment. Impact.”  The White House National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States praises the collective efforts of the healthcare workforce, including “increased access to new, sterile syringes and other injection equipment to minimize infections from injection drug use.”

Syringe services programs (SSPs) have proved beneficial to countries across the globe.  In Hong Kong SAR, pharmacies can provide new syringes without a prescription.  Surveys by the health department find that only 2% of HIV infections are attributable to persons who inject drugs (PWIDs) in this country.  In Berlin, Germany, 77% of PWIDs use syringe vending machines at least 4 times per week.  Elsewhere in Germany, syringe SSPs in jail dramatically reduce rate of new infections.

The evidence is clear: Syringe exchange programs work.  Not only do they decrease HIV transmission among PWIDs, but they don’t recruit new drug users and they are cost-effective compared to treating individuals with HIV.  So what’s the hold up?  We need only look at the United States to see that legislation for SSPs is far from universal.

aids-blog-1

There are currently, 228 SSPs in 35 states, the District of Colombia, Puerto Rico, and the Indian Nations.  In states without SSPs, the impact to PWIDs is devastating:

In jurisdictions in the United States, where drug paraphernalia laws were strictly enforced, higher prevalence of HIV infection was observed despite lower risk-taking behavior.  Legal barriers in Maryland and Texas in the United States resulted in a high prevalence of HIV with   up to 25% of PWIDs infected in Baltimore, Maryland and 35% of PWIDs infected in Houston, Texas.  These findings overall suggest that injecting paraphernalia legislation that restricts needle and syringe availability inadvertently increases HIV infection.  There is no convincing evidence that this legislation reduced HIV prevalence.

Whereas Maryland now has one SSPs, Texas is still one of 15 states that do not offer this service.  This is especially concerning due to the prevalence of HIV on the US-Mexico border. Made possible by a combination of illegal and legal sex work, PWIDs, and the highly transient nature of the population, HIV is rampant and largely unchecked in Mexico border towns adjacent to US cities.

aids-blog-2

While syringe exchange programs are key, more needs to be done to educate the citizens of both countries:

And with Mexico’s border cities serving as funnels for workers and goods traversing the two countries, Tijuana’s AIDS crisis poses a direct threat to the United States.

“I call HIV the uninvited hitchhiker,” said Steffanie Strathdee, a leading AIDS researcher at the University of California’s Division of International Health and Cross-Cultural Medicine.

A survey by university researchers found that 64 percent of 116 HIV-positive Tijuana residents crossed into the United States at least once a month. Nearly half of men having sex with men in Tijuana and 75 percent of those in San Diego reported having partners across the border. And of 1,000 prostitutes interviewed in Tijuana, 69 percent had U.S. clients who crossed the border for their services.

The federal ban on syringe exchange programs was lifted in the first few weeks of 2016, largely in response to a nationwide heroin and HIV epidemic in America’s heartland.  Federal monies cannot be allocated to purchase needles, but cover all other expenses including staff, vehicles, and gas.  State and local funding could be used to purchase needles.  Still, adoption of programming has been slow.

Globally, only 90 needles are available per PWID annually.  This is less than half the recommended amount of 200, and many countries provide far fewer.

aids-blog-3

With a dubious history of HIV prevention and intervention, it is no wonder Russia’s HIV epidemic is increasing 10-15% each year.  Recent data show that 1 in 50 people in Russia’s 4th-largest city are HIV-infected.  When outside funding for SSPs was withdrawn in 2010 – as Russia was then classified as a high-income country – SSPs dwindled from 80 to 10.  Intravenous drug use accounts for 58% of HIV infections.

aids-blog-4

Under Putin’s conservative regime, HIV infections have nearly doubled since 2010 – 500,000 to 930,000 registered carriers – and are projected to reach 3 million (2 million registered carriers) within the next 5 years.  Despite annual spending of $418 million (US) rates are increasing as the lion’s share is spent on antiretroviral therapy, not prevention.

President-elect Trump has been surprisingly vocal in praising Putin, and unsurprisingly obtuse about how he plans to address HIV domestically and abroad.  When asked whether he would support the President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief, Trump was not un-supportive:

Well, I like committing to all of those things. Those are great things. Alzheimer’s, AIDS, so many different — you now, we are close on some of them. On some of them, honestly, with all of the work that has been done — which hasn’t been enough, we are not very close. But the answer is yes. I believe so strongly in that. And we are going to lead the way.

In perhaps the weirdest twist yet, Vice President-elect Mike Pence could prove to be an ally for continued funding of SSPs in the US.  In 2015, an upsurge in HIV infections in Indiana led then-Governor Pence to advocate for syringe exchange programs after a career of staunchly opposing such legislation.

And what of those border states?  Perhaps Trump’s fabled wall might come in handy.

The Year of the Girl

The United Nations declared October 11th the International Day of the Girl Child.  Everywhere I looked for this post’s inspiration, I saw story after story of the daily violence perpetrated against girls worldwide. I had to ask myself, why just a day?  Aren’t girls – roughly half of the world’s population – deserving of much more consideration? I say that we declare 2017 the YEAR of the Girl and devote our efforts to address the following issues.

Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a global concern. Some 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have undergone FGM, usually between infancy and 15 years of age. In many countries, FGM is a deeply entrenched cultural practice that has seen little decrease in the decades since foreign aid workers have been campaigning for is abolition. The risks might be high – infection, infertility, and complications of childbirth – but the perceived social benefits outweigh the physical costs. Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropology professor working as part of a five-year research project by the Population Council, has witnessed this conflict firsthand among the Rendille people of Northern Kenya:

One of the things that is important to understand about it is that people see the costs and benefits. It is certainly a cost, but the benefits are immediate. For a Rendille woman, are you going to be able to give legitimate birth? Or elsewhere, are you going to be a proper Muslim? Are you going to have your sexual desire attenuated and be a virgin until marriage? These are huge considerations, and so when you tip the balance and think about that, the benefits outweigh the costs.

Despite cultural ties, FGM is decreasing in some African countries as evidenced by rates from the prior generation.  However, with prevalence as high as 81% (Egypt), 79% (Sierra Leone), and 62% (Ethiopia), there is still much work to be done.

prevalence

For example, with prevalence at 60-70%, FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan is a “hidden” epidemic.  Prevalence of this practice elsewhere in Iraq is 8%.  Outlawed in 2011 by the Kurdistan Regional Government under the Family Violence Law, FGM has continued largely unabated due to poor implementation and push-back from religious leaders.  You can read the Human Rights Watch harrowing report about FGM in Iraqi Kurdistan here.

Rape and Child Marriage

Last Friday, the BBC reported on a bill under consideration by the Turkish Parliament that would clear a man of statutory rape if he married his victim.  This bill is evidence of increasing violence against Turkish women.  Between 2003 and 2010, the murder rate of women increased by 1,400%.  Of course, the bill isn’t couched in terms of legalizing rape, but as a loophole for those offenders who know not the errors of their ways:

The aim, says the government, is not to excuse rape but to rehabilitate those who may not have realised their sexual relations were unlawful – or to prevent girls who have sex under the age of 18 from feeling ostracised by their community.

If passed, the bill would release 3,000 men from prison as well as legitimize child rape and marriage. Per Girls Not Brides, Turkey has one of the highest child marriage rates in Europe with 15% of girls married before the age of 18. Globally 34% of women are married before the age of 18 and every day 39,000 girls join their ranks. According to a study recently published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, child marriage comes with health and social consequences. Along with unintended pregnancies, infant and maternal mortality, and HIV, girls who are married suffer from social isolation, power imbalance, and experience higher lifetime rates of physical and sexual intimate partner violence.

Coming-of-age “Cleansing” Rituals

Practiced in parts of Africa, girls as young as 12 are forced to have sex as part of a sexual cleansing ritual.  The men, known as “hyenas,” are paid by parents to usher girls through the transition between girlhood and womanhood.  Girls are coerced into this practice through familial and societal pressure.  It is believed that great tragedy will befall the family and community should she not comply.  The use of a condom is prohibited.

A BBC radio broadcast found that communities believe the spread of HIV to be a minimal risk since they can pick men they know are not infected. One Malawian hyena, Eric Aniva, has been charged with exposing hundreds of girls and women to HIV. Aniva knew of his HIV status but did not disclose to his customers.

Forty percent of the global burden of HIV infections are in Southern Africa. Thirty percent of new infections in this area are in girls and women aged 15-24. Young women contract HIV at rates four times greater than male peers and 5-7 years earlier, linked to sexual debut or sexual cleansing rituals.

Let’s face it: Girls around the globe are being short-changed. Though progress has been made, there is still much work to be done. The Sustainable Development Goals have promised to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere” by 2030. Others attest that it will take at least another century for women to reach wage equity in the United States.  However it happens, rest assured it will take more than a day.