Three ways to turn science into practice to reduce HIV among key populations

Written by Rose Wilcher, Director, Research Utilization, FHI 360, and Hally Mahler, Project Director, LINKAGES

This blog post was originally featured on FHI 360’s Degrees.


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Photo: Jessica Scranton, FHI 360

Next week, leading scientists and cutting-edge thinkers will gather at the International AIDS Society’s 9th IAS Conference on HIV Science in Paris to discuss the latest scientific discoveries in HIV prevention, care and treatment. These discoveries hold the potential to accelerate progress toward the global 90-90-90 targets set forth by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). And, they are especially important for key populations — including men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people and people who inject drugs — who shoulder a disproportionate burden of HIV. UNAIDS estimates that 45% percent of all new HIV infections among adults worldwide occur among these key populations and their sex partners. Reaching these groups with new technologies and approaches is essential to ending the epidemic.

The headway on display at IAS will, we hope, leave us feeling optimistic. However, science cannot have impact unless it is applied in policy and programs. We are working to translate evidence of what works into widespread practice for key populations through the Linkages across the Continuum of HIV Services for Key Populations Affected by HIV (LINKAGES) project, which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. President’s Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). But progress is slower than it should be, largely because the issues that drive the spread of HIV in key population communities — unrelenting stigma, discrimination, violence and, in many cases, criminalization — also mean that these groups are often the last to benefit from scientific discoveries.

To ensure that new technologies and emerging evidence-based practices reach those who want and need them most, we should do three things.

We need more community-led demand for the latest evidence-based innovations. Even the most compelling evidence does not put itself into practice, especially for the benefit of the most marginalized. When members of key populations demand access to innovations that could make a difference in their lives, that is often the needed catalyst to move research to practice. Organizations led by key populations are chronically underfunded and undervalued, but their voice and engagement are critical to ensuring that evidence-based practices reach them in a way that is safe, appropriate and responsive to their needs.

For example, great strides have been made in recent years using pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) as a new HIV prevention option, and it is sure to be a hot topic at the IAS conference. But, PrEP implementation, particularly for key populations, is complex and moving slowly. The International Treatment Preparedness Coalition (ITPC), a LINKAGES partner, recently convened a global think tank meeting with stakeholders representing the communities that are most affected by HIV to discuss how best to increase access to PrEP. “This was the first time that people from different communities from across the globe sat together in one room to discuss how to demand PrEP on their own terms,” said Solange Baptiste, executive director of ITPC. The discussions at that meeting are informing an upcoming global policy brief and an activist toolkit on PrEP that can accelerate implementation.

We must create an environment that enables the delivery and uptake of evidence-based interventions among those who need them most. Even when the latest prevention, care and treatment options and services are available, stigma, violence and discrimination from health care providers, family members, police, and partners hinder access to services. In many of the countries where LINKAGES works, including Botswana, Cameroon, the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Malawi and Suriname, we are systematically integrating violence prevention and response into HIV programming for key populations. We are working to mitigate stigma in health care facilities through the introduction of a text-message-based quality assurance tool that gathers information about key populations’ experiences of stigma and discrimination at health facilities and assesses overall client satisfaction with the care they received.

But, work to dismantle stigma and address violence against key populations, including through policy and legal reforms, always needs more attention. We will miss opportunities for the science to have maximum impact if the environment in which the science needs to be applied is not also progressing.

We need to accompany these efforts with the generation of more evidence through implementation science. Such investments will build collective knowledge about how to introduce proven interventions in real-world contexts, thereby speeding up the pace of replication and implementation at scale.

At the IAS conference, LINKAGES and colleagues from USAID, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and amfAR will convene a satellite session that will present findings from implementation science studies focused on key populations that were conducted in Brazil, Peru, Senegal, South Africa and Thailand. Taken together, these studies contribute important new evidence about how to enhance uptake of and retention in services for key populations, across the HIV prevention, care and treatment cascade. They also illustrate how valuable implementation science is to ensuring that proven interventions achieve results through widespread implementation.

The evidence base on HIV and key populations has grown tremendously in the past several years, and more will come to the fore at the IAS conference. We will be participating with an eye toward how we can move the science into practice so that it benefits as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. The science holds much promise; we cannot let implementation lag.

Through Bullets and Bombs to Reach Health Care

Written by Cecilia Amaral, Global Health Corps Fellow, IntraHealth International, and Carol Bales, Senior Communications & Advocacy Officer, IntraHealth International

This blog post was originally featured on IntraHealth International’s VITAL blog.


 

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Photos: Alex Collins, Senior Program Officer, IntraHealth International

In conflict areas around the world, health workers like Patrick in South Sudan continue to risk their lives to do their jobs.

“There were guns, bullets, and bombs everywhere,” says Patrick Hakim, a clinical officer in South Sudan.

That was the scene around Juba last July after fighting broke out at the presidential compound between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) forces.

Amidst the country’s already horrific and brutal conflict, Patrick says those two weeks were characterized by widespread terror. Many borders, roads, and markets were closed. Patrick and his fellow health workers were afraid of leaving home, of being attacked or stopped at armed check points.

But he did. He went to work.

“I felt compelled to risk my life, get out of my house, and walk to Juba Teaching Hospital,” he says. “Because there were clients I had booked the previous week.”

Patrick is part of an IntraHealth International team supporting USAID’s LINKAGES project, which provides HIV testing, care, and treatment largely to foreign female sex workers—a key population in South Sudan’s fight against HIV. The team distributes condoms and antiretroviral drugs, which require regular follow-up and refilling of prescriptions.

So during the days of the July crisis, Patrick was still receiving calls for HIV services.

Patrick Hakim, LINKAGES Clinical Officer

Patrick Hakim, LINKAGES Clinical Officer

He and his colleagues continued offering some HIV services to their clients and other South Sudanese. The team provided condoms to the female sex workers in Juba town through their peer leaders. And condoms, test kits, and antiretrovirals were made available at the Juba Teaching Hospital and Al-Saba Children’s Hospital, the other main hospital in Juba town.

But many of Patrick’s clients weren’t calling. They were scared, too. Many fled Juba and even South Sudan. Some hid in the bush. And some ran out of food and stopped taking their antiretroviral medications to avoid the side effects.

One client, a sex worker who travelled from Yei to Juba to refill her prescriptions every couple months, was determined to get her medication. She walked through bushes and villages to avoid the roads. The trip that usually took her four hours by bus took her almost four weeks. When she finally reached Juba Teaching Hospital, Patrick says, she had lost a lot of weight, was malnourished, and had a persistent cough. In fact, she could hardly breathe.

But she made it. Patrick can only guess how many others did not.

Disease Doesn’t Wait for War to End

Since civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, tens of thousands of people have been killed and three million people have been displaced. The country has plunged into a humanitarian crisis that has been exacerbated by famine in the northern-central region. The crisis worsened in 2016, and 7.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Now millions of people are vulnerable to disease and injury and unable to reach the health care they need. More are dying from vaccine-preventable and treatable diseases, such as measles and cholera—deaths that are directly linked to the lack of basic health services. Women lack skilled birth assistance and access to contraception, and people with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis have been cut off from life-saving medications.

Only 43% of South Sudan’s health facilities are now functional. More than 100 have closed, and at least 29 have been looted or destroyed since the beginning of the civil war.

In February 2016, a Médecins Sans Frontières medical center in Jonglei state was caught in crossfire. A six-year-old boy was shot and died. Thirty-five other patients were injured. The center was looted of medical equipment and medicines.

In the days of the July crisis, when Patrick’s client was avoiding roads and hiding in the bush, shelling hit the maternity wing of an International Medical Corps hospital within a UN Protection of Civilians site in Juba. Fifty thousand people were suddenly without medical services and humanitarian aid.

Patrick had reason to be scared. Health workers, patients, and facilities are deliberate targets.

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The waiting room of the LINKAGES drop-in center.

Last May, for example, soldiers at a checkpoint in Yei shot a doctor in the stomach while she was driving an ambulance late at night, returning from rushing a pregnant woman for emergency care. She died four days later from her injuries. In September, armed men threatened health officials at gunpoint while ransacking a health center in Lasu. In December, also in Lasu, SPLA-IO forces abducted three health workers during road clashes (they were later released).

And that’s not all. What’s happening in South Sudan exemplifies a continuing trend among conflict-ridden countries.

Impunity Must End

A new report by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition, Impunity Must End, documents attacks on health care in 23 countries in conflict around the world.

  • In Syria, there were 108 attacks on health facilities and 91 health workers killed.
  • In Afghanistan, there were 119 attacks on health facilities and health workers.
  • In West Bank/Gaza, 162 medical technicians were injured by violence or interference with ambulances.

But documentation of such attacks remains spotty. The report’s numbers may greatly understate the actual extent and severity of these attacks.

And accountability remains almost non-existent. Despite the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 last year, which set out a roadmap to protect health in conflict, practically nothing has been done to enforce and implement it.

Impunity Must End makes concrete recommendations to end these atrocities, including regular reporting by countries to the UN on how they are preventing attacks, investigating those that occur, and holding perpetrators accountable. If member states fail to act, the UN Security Council—which met last week to discuss the resolution again—should initiate thorough investigations and establish accountability procedures. The UN Security Council must act.

It was Patrick’s childhood dream to become a health worker so that others wouldn’t suffer the hardships his family endured due to lack of access to health care. But he and his colleagues need to be safe to save lives. They should not have to be scared to go to work. And no one should have to be scared to seek out health care.

The impunity must end.

Read more about Patrick in this Picture It post.

IntraHealth is a founding member of the Safeguarding Health in Conflict Coalition. IntraHealth leads communications for the coalition and co-authored and edited the new Impunity Must End report. This blog post sites data from the report.

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The ART center at the Juba Teaching Hospital, where LINKAGES clinical staff like Patrick provide HIV services on a weekly basis as support to the existing hospital staff.

The IDUIT offers practical guidance on implementing HIV programs for people who inject drugs

Written by Brun Gonzalez, Chair of Board of Directors of the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) and Judy Chang, INPUD Executive Director

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Photos provided by: Brun Gonzalez

The Injecting Drug User Implementation Tool (IDUIT), jointly developed by INPUD and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was released this April and is the fourth publication in a series of tools on implementing HIV programs with key populations. It offers practical guidance on implementing HIV programs for and with people who inject drugs (PWID) across the HIV care continuum and contains examples of best practices from around the world that can be used to support efforts to plan programs specific to the PWID community. The tool covers prevention, care, treatment, and support interventions and focuses on partnerships with or by PWID organizations.

The IDUIT is the product of a collaborative process between PWID, advocates, service providers, researchers, government officials, UN agencies, development partners, and nongovernmental organizations. The tool provides a strong platform for emphasizing the importance of community empowerment in reaching PWID with HIV services.

 

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“The IDUIT is the result of a very positive and important collaboration between the United Nations and the international community of people who use drugs that reflects… high-level participation and engagement that answers the affirmation ‘nothing about us without us’ in a meaningful and constructive way,” said Brun Gonzalez.

A multidisciplinary group of people came together for a consultation meeting in Bangkok to elucidate optimal approaches for designing, developing, and implementing comprehensive services that meet the real needs of the PWID community. When developing the tool, it was also important to maintain a broad focus on issues that other key populations most at risk for HIV often face.

The sessions were attended by representatives from the UNODC, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, the World Health Organization, civil society specialists, and members of the PWID community. Individuals working on health and harm reduction service provision, community organizing, and advocacy campaigns brought their unique experiences to the table to discuss best practices and efficient models based on community involvement and strengthening.

The convergence of “top-down” and “bottom-up” perspectives allowed for a rich, comprehensive process that brought together the best of both worlds to develop the IDUIT: the evidence-based, biomedical model and the pragmatic, rights-based model derived from what was referred to as “community wisdom” during the consultation.

It is essential to seek representation of and participation from the people who are immediately affected by the decisions being made when looking to improve harm reduction services and implementation tools. The IDUIT is one step in a long process of fine-tuning and updating the mechanisms set in place at an international level.