December 1st is World AIDS Day. For the past 23 years, organizations and individuals across the globe have united on this day to fight one of history’s most deadly and feared diseases and show their support for those living with it.
But fighting HIV and AIDS is more than just a health issue. It’s a human issue. For all of the medical advancements in understanding the physical causes and nature of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the disease remains one of the most stigmatized illnesses, particularly impacting people who are already vulnerable and marginalized. In other words, those most susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus are also the least likely to have access to prevention and treatment options.
For that reason, the American Red Cross and the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network are making significant efforts to bring HIV programs to marginalized communities at higher risk of infection in 14 countries.
“Around the world, the Red Cross is well poised to reach vulnerable communities,” says Andy Meléndez-Salgado, the senior HIV advisor with the American Red Cross. That’s because in addition to providing funding to HIV projects, the American Red Cross has made behavior change a key focus in its prevention education programs.
“Before you can enable people to seek help, you have to make sure they’re in an environment that supports that connection,” says Marianna Kuttothara, an American Red Cross program officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. To help curb the spread of HIV, as well as to reduce social stigma associated with the disease, the American Red Cross is working to improve HIV-related knowledge, attitudes, skills and behaviors.
The Caribbean region is home to the second largest percentage of people living with HIV. In 2009, the American Red Cross launched the Caribbean HIV and AIDS Program which works with the Red Cross in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Guyana. The goals of the program are to increase knowledge and understanding about the disease, change local attitudes and build prevention capacity. It provides peer education, condom distribution, counseling, testing and other support to those living with HIV. It also trains local people to be HIV educators, to lead support groups and perform one-on-one outreach to youth, sex workers and other populations at higher risk.
In recognition of World AIDS Day, HIV peer educators are taking advantage of technology to provide additional outreach opportunities. They are using social media and text messages to expand their outreach and to target anti-stigma messages to specific communities.
The American Red Cross is dedicated to providing support for persons living with HIV and to preventing the spread of the disease through promoting understanding and de-stigmatization among higher risk communities.Last month, Red Cross representatives participated in the 2011 Caribbean HIV Conference where they presented seminars and displays of their work in combating the spread of HIV.