July 27, 2017

Recognizing Key Populations at IAS 2017 

Written by Leanne Gray, Digital Communications Specialist, FHI 360

At the 9th IAS Conference on HIV Science (IAS 2017), the call was loud and clear: We must continue to focus on and fund programs for key populations: men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers, and transgender people. 

Held in Paris, France July 23-26, IAS 2017 brought over 8,000 scientists, researchers, advocates, and government representatives together to share their latest scientific findings related to HIV and AIDS research. The conference featured key populations prominently, with awards, special satellite sessions, oral abstract sessions, and press conferences.  

The call was heard from the beginning of the conference on Sunday, July 23, when Giovanna Rincon, president of the ACCEPTESS-T association, called for greater visibility and acceptance of transgender people in HIV policies and programs, and issued a plea to scientists to prioritize vulnerable populations in their research. 

Globally, key populations represent 45% of all new HIV infections, but are difficult to reach in many places due to stigma, discrimination, and criminalization. Reaching these groups with HIV testing, care, and treatment services from trained, professional, and understanding health care workers is vital if we are to reach the UNAIDS 90-90-90 HIV treatment goals and see an end to the epidemic. New data toward these goals, released by UNAIDS at the conference, shows that globally, more than half of all people living with HIV (53%) now have access to HIV treatment and AIDS-related deaths have almost halved since 2005. However, gaps in the treatment continuum are greater for certain groups, including key populations, and we must do more to ensure that they are not left behind.

During the Monday morning plenary session at IAS 2017, PEPFAR Ambassador Deborah Birx gave out three awards to Lusia Ang from Indonesia, Neo Monnapula from Botswana, and Stella Chege from Kenya. Part of IAS’s Me and My Healthcare Provider initiative, the awards recognize those who provide quality HIV prevention, treatment and care services to key populations, often in the face of discriminatory laws, traditions and belief systems.

All three award winners are healthcare providers at clinics supported by the USAID and PEPFAR-funded Linkages across the Continuum of HIV Services for Key Populations Affected by HIV (LINKAGES) project, which is managed by FHI 360.

At a Tuesday press conference, experts and healthcare workers discussed the importance of combating stigma against key populations. Neo Monnapula, a social worker from Botswana who received the award for her excellence in providing services to sex workers, said, “To me, it has been fulfilling to work with sex workers because they’re open, and they’re people just like anyone else: they are mothers, they are sisters, and they need access to services like everyone else.”

“LINKAGES has really shown us, and we’ve been told this by communities from the beginning, that you need to work within the community. Using peer to peer outreach has really made a significant difference over the last three years,” said PEPFAR Ambassador Deborah Birx.

Neo Monnapula and Ifeanyi Orazulike also participated in a Facebook Live interview with Kevin Osborne from IAS. Watch the interview below.

The message of IAS 2017 could not have been more clear: key populations must be recognized in order combat the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Confirmed by the scientists, researchers and advocates in attendance, conversations from #IAS2017 must advance so that we can continue to enrich and save lives all around the world.