UNAIDS Forum Focuses on Sexual Minorities

HIV/AIDS Spectrum logoNASW co-sponsored a UNAIDS forum in Washington in September that highlighted the needs of marginalized populations associated with HIV, particularly men who have sex with men and other sexual minorities.

Evelyn Tomaszewski, project director for the NASW HIV/AIDS Spectrum: Mental Health Training and Education of Social Workers Project, moderated the panel event that included speakers from UNAIDS, the U.S. State Department, Romania and Jamaica. Tomaszewski said the meeting was first in a series of forums addressing global HIV and human rights in collaboration with World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.

"Today's program is part of a series designed to share expertise so that we can better understand the link of domestic policy and global human rights and provide an opportunity to address this important topic with policymakers," Tomaszewski said. "Social workers are a part of the global health response to HIV/AIDS. We continue to be part of the effort to improve access to care and treatment 00around the world. NASW's participation in the forum is a natural connection for the social work profession."

The meeting, organized by UNAIDS in collaboration with the HIV Policy Working Group on Men Who Have Sex with Men and Other Sexual Minorities, discussed some of the barriers that prevent sexual minorities from accessing HIV prevention, treatment, care and support.

UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibe spoke at the event, which was hosted by U.S. Reps. Howard Berman and Barbara Lee, both California Democrats. Lee is also a social worker.

"We are here because it remains an undeniable fact in all regions of the world — including here in the U.S. — that men who have sex with men [or MSM] lack universal access to HIV services," Sidibe said.

"If we are to see a renewed emphasis on human rights in the proposed Global Health Initiative and if we are to see commitment to MSM programming in PEPFAR II [the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] — we need to see unwavering leadership," Sidibe said.

According to UNAIDS, evidence-based research demonstrates that providing HIV services to men who have sex with men helps reduce the rate of HIV infection among this at-risk group. In many communities, however, taboo and stigma forces them to conceal their sexual practices, which in turn may also put any female partners they have at risk of HIV infection, presenters explained.

Additionally, criminalizing sex between men excludes or discourages them from accessing HIV-related services out of fear, said panelist Jaevion Nelson, a representative from the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network.

UNAIDS officials said unprotected sex between men accounts for between 5 percent and 10 percent of global HIV infections, although the proportion of cases attributed to this mode of transmission varies considerably among countries. It is, however, the predominant mode of HIV transmission in much of the developed world.

Eric Goosby and Michel SidibéAmbassador Eric Goosby (left), global AIDS coordinator for the U.S. Department of State, and UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé offered presentations at the UNAIDS forum.

Ambassador Eric Goosby, global AIDS coordinator for the U.S. Department of State, oversees implementation of PEPFAR as well as U.S. government involvement with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. He said a strong national commitment to deliver services is essential to make HIV prevention and treatment programs successful.

"We want to ensure access points are open to people to feel comfortable in delivery systems," Goosby said.

He added that non-government organizations and government programs need to work together to ensure success.

Tomaszewski said the speakers shared a common message that there is a need to break the silence created by stigma and to make human rights a priority in all communities.

The September meeting was the first in a series hosted by UNAIDS that focus on three high-risk, marginalized populations. The other meetings will focus on sex workers and people who inject drugs.

In other news related to the NASW Spectrum Project, Tomaszewski said the project has recently been given another five-year contract from the Center for Mental Health Services of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to continue its work.

The contract provides HIV and mental health practice skills for people working in social work, mental health and substance abuse fields to enhance and promote culturally competent practice with individuals, families, and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

Tomaszewski said the project plans to expand its Web presence by including more outreach programs and increase the size of its HIV/social work resources list.

There is also an NASW member webinar related to HIV and social work planned for the spring as well as an upcoming Spanish version of the NASW Web education course "Understanding HIV/AIDS: The Social Worker's Role."

"We will be continuing to promote our continuing education programming in 2010," Tomaszewski said. "We completed a train-the-trainer session in June and graduated 10 trainers from across the U.S. who are now available to provide workshops in their respective communities about treatment adherence, ethics and behavioral health concerns related to HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment."

Learn more about the NASW HIV/AIDS Spectrum Practice section.