HIV: Tackling the stigma faced by vulnerable patients

Sex workers and men who have sex with men are amongst the most marginalised

23 Jul 18

As the International AIDS conference begins in Amsterdam on 23 July, MSF will join organisations from around the world to work towards supporting the most vulnerable people living with HIV/AIDS – sex workers, people who use drugs, men who have sex with men, gay and transgender people and prisoners.

Virginia is a Malawian sex worker living in Beira, Mozambique. She works to support her nephew and nieces after their parents died from HIV. However, Virginia recently found out she was also HIV positive but is afraid to start treatment, for a number of reasons.

“A month ago, I found out that I had HIV. I don’t feel well. I haven’t gone out much. I’m just resting, sleeping”, Virginia says.

“I haven’t started treatment yet. I’ve heard that you become very sick from the side effects. I don’t know if I should start treatment in Malawi or here; I travel between the countries every month. And I don’t know how it works, if I can get treatment in both countries.

“I can’t think or feel too much about my situation because I have people who depend on me.

“If I kept thinking about it, I would go crazy.”

Key populations

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Virginia’s story resonates with the experiences of many sex workers (SW), people who use drugs (PWUD), men who have sex with men (MSM), and prisoners. These groups are commonly referred to as “key populations” and are disproportionally affected by the HIV disease.

Key populations and their sexual partners account for 47 percent of new HIV infections worldwide and 97 percent of new HIV infections in Eastern Europe and central Asia. One-third of new HIV infections in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa are among people who inject drugs.

Despite their higher risk of acquiring HIV, these key populations are often excluded from accessing HIV treatment and prevention as well as comprehensive health services. Stigma, discrimination, social exclusion, violence and criminalisation are part of their daily struggles.

Driven into the shadows

“The main challenge for sex workers and men who have sex with men is stigma and discrimination,” says Farisai Gamariel, a programme supervisor working with an MSF project that supports men who have sex with men and transwomen in Beira, Mozambique.

“They are driven to work in the shadows, in unsafe situations, harassed by police, abused by criminal gangs, and suffer discrimination at clinics and hospitals.”
Lucy O’ConnellMSF’s focal point for key populations in Southern Africa

“People are not well informed about men who have sex with men and sex workers. This affects their self-esteem and makes it difficult for them to deal with the challenges they face in accessing healthcare.

“One of our male patients, talking about going to the health centre, said, that they were looked at as if they were from another planet. They felt bad and swore they would not step foot there again.

“Most cases of stigma and discrimination are never exposed, which also makes it difficult to fight against them. People are scared to report cases for fear of further victimisation.”

Farisai Gamariel, supervisor of MSF’s patient support team in Beira, Mozambique

“In our projects in Southern Africa, we have observed that sex workers and men who have sex with men are unable to access information on how to protect themselves against HIV and other diseases,” says Lucy O’Connell, MSF’s focal point for key populations in Southern Africa.

“When they come forward to seek healthcare, they risk being hassled rather than helped.

“They are driven to work in the shadows, in unsafe situations, harassed by police, abused by criminal gangs, and suffer discrimination at clinics and hospitals.”

Tackling discrimination

Sebastiana, a healthcare worker in MSF’s sex worker programme in Beira, Mozambique says: “Sex workers in Mozambique face a lot of discrimination.

“It is difficult for them to get medical attention in health centres. It is especially hard for those who come from Malawi or Zimbabwe. Whether they are from other countries or from Mozambique, sex workers’ health cards are often not recognised in clinics, even those who are already on antiretroviral treatment.

“We are working to spread awareness about the healthcare needs of sex workers. We’ve created a link between them and the health centres, to ensure that they can start and remain on treatment.

“There is still a lot of work to do, but the situation is a lot better now. Now they are looked on as people, not just street girls who are sleeping around.”

Accessible healthcare

MSF’s experience in Mozambique, Malawi and India shows that key populations need to have health services that are adapted to their lifestyles, otherwise they risk avoiding seeking medical treatment for fear of discrimination, from health staff and other people.

“In order to respond to the needs of key populations, it is crucial that we tackle the specific barriers preventing them from accessing care. We need to be open to and encourage locally adapted solutions to improve access to care. Long-term international and domestic funding is required, and key populations must be factored into the design and implementation of medical programmes.”
Sidney WongMSF Medical Director, Amsterdam

“In overcrowded health clinics, sex workers and men who have sex with men don’t want to be recognised or identified, and so they tend to be the last to arrive. Standard clinic opening hours don’t work for them,” O’Connell says.

“Solving this requires locally adapted solutions. In one clinic in Beira, Mozambique, we added staff that were able to react opportunistically to patients’ needs. Peers were tasked with navigating clients to clinics. We ensured they were attended to at the clinic, as we risked never seeing them again.

“For those who live outside urban centres, the cost of travelling to health facilities is another major deterrent. To overcome this, we find ways to reach out to them, instead of them having to find us. In rural areas like Nsanje, Malawi, we organise one-stop mobile clinics in hotel rooms, scheduled according to seasonality and demand.”

Nsanje in Malawi has an estimated HIV rate of 12.1 percent with 44,792 people living with HIV

Adapted solutions are also being sought by MSF’s teams in India.

“Many of our patients in Manipur, India, are people who inject drugs,” Anita Mesic, HIV and TB programme adviser for MSF in Amsterdam, explains.

“They endure a high burden of diseases – HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis – as well as psychosocial issues. Their complex medical needs require comprehensive, tailor-made medical programmes that integrate both prevention and care.”

If we do not respond to the specific health needs of key populations, we won’t be able to curb the HIV epidemic.