More than 1.2 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with HIV, it touches the lives of people of every race, income and gender. Social workers, and those considering a career in social work, are called to participate in the HIV/AIDS Prevention movement while assisting those who have been diagnosed with the disease.
Who is Most Affected by HIV/AIDS?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 67 percent of people infected are gay or bisexual men, while heterosexual contact accounted for 24 percent of estimated HIV diagnoses, and heterosexual women accounted for 19 percent. Sex workers are at especially high risk, and more than one in five new diagnoses in 2014 were among persons aged 13 to 24 years.
Disadvantaged communities tend to see the highest infection rates, with lack of access to prevention and treatment programs in these communities often results in poorer outcomes. In many cases, HIV/AIDS prevention is prioritized below more urgent problems around unemployment, crime and housing. Furthermore, fear of discrimination often results in people avoiding testing, getting treatment or disclosing their HIV status.
It’s also worth noting that the symptoms of AIDS can take 10 years or more to appear. This – and the factors mentioned above – helps to explain the startling fact that one in eight people don’t know they’re infected.
Reducing New Infections
Tackling HIV effectively requires adopting better community-level approaches. There are many different opportunities open to social workers in helping to integrate HIV prevention and care with social service programs that tackle poverty, crime and other social stressors. The National HIV/AIDS Strategy outlines three key plans to help reduce new infections:
- Educate people about the threat of HIV/AIDS
- Intensify prevention efforts in the most affected communities
- Expand targeted efforts using a combination of evidence-based approaches
With a rise in early and regular HIV testing, the level of HIV infection has declined, with new diagnoses falling by 19 percent from 2005 to 2014 in the U.S. Despite this shift, lack of government resources and access to affordable health care remains a factor, with an estimated 1,218,400 adults and adolescents living with HIV.
HIV/AIDS Prevention Legislation
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly referred to as Obamacare, was introduced in 2010 to expand coverage, control health care costs and improve health care delivery across the country. As a result, it has expanded access to medical treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS by:
- Providing coverage to people with pre-existing conditions
- Broadening Medicaid access
- Ensuring access to more affordable health care
- Lowering prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients
Social workers need to help their clients with HIV/AIDS to understand these changes and ensure they access reliable, affordable health care.
HIV/AIDS Awareness Factors for Social Workers
There are other factors that social workers need to consider when trying to stem the rise of new infections. A problem identified by the National HIV/AIDS Strategy is the high rates of male incarceration, which can result in gender imbalance in the local community, and higher chance of infection.
Social workers also need to be aware of the special risks faced by women, as they may be unable to negotiate safer sexual practices due to the risk of violence.
When working with people living with HIV/AIDS, social workers need to be aware of:
- Local HIV/AIDS support groups and community-based organizations.
- Cultural sensitivity and unconscious biases.
- Drug and alcohol abuse and the role it plays in HIV infection.
- Safer-sex practices and awareness.
- Multidisciplinary teams and the importance of communication between medical professionals, social workers and other team members.
Joe Vanny Perez is a social worker for New York Presbyterian Hospital’s Center for Special Studies and works with patients with HIV/AIDS. He believes that a social worker who works individually, or in a group setting, with these clients needs to encourage and promote self-care and medication adherence; healing and self-confidence; learning and advocacy around HIV/AIDS myths; and self-reflection and self-advocacy.
Changing Perceptions and Inspiring Action for the HIV/AIDS Community
There are many roles for social work in HIV/AIDS prevention, particularly around eliminating the misinformation and misunderstandings about the disease. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 16 and 25 percent of Americans, respectively, didn’t know that HIV couldn’t be transmitted via a toilet seat or a drinking glass.
Social workers involved in HIV/AIDS care are supported by a strong national network of programs, events and information sharing. A number of conferences and events are organized throughout the U.S. by the AIDS Education and Training Center (AETC) Program. World AIDS Day serves as the catalyst for various events that help increase awareness and compassion for HIV sufferers, and provides opportunities for social workers to join advocacy efforts.
While much has been done to reduce infection rates and improve the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS, the battle is far from won. All people affected by this deadly and debilitating disease deserve compassion and support, and social workers will continue to play a vital role in this regard.
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