The statistics are frightening – an estimated 19 million people across the globe are infected with HIV and do not know it. The lack of knowledge comes with an unnecessarily early death sentence because, when untreated, HIV invariably develops into fatal AIDS. However, those devastating numbers stand to drop considering a recent agreement between representatives of multinational AIDS programs and health organizations. During United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) talks in New York on Feb. 9- 10, 2017, leaders of these programs agreed to work together to create a global coalition of community health workers to tackle the HIV epidemic.
Community Health Workers – What Are They?
According to the American Public Health Association (APHA), a community health worker is a trusted public health worker who operates on the front lines and/or has a close understanding of the community served. This relationship allows the worker to facilitate access to services, improve the quality of services and increase health awareness within the narrow scope of their community. Additionally, community health workers can provide outreach, community education, informal counseling, social support and advocacy. These attributes are especially valuable when battling the global HIV epidemic.
Because formal education, like an M.D or nursing certification, is not a requirement to become a community health worker, their services are extremely cost-effective for people in impoverished areas. Currently, over six million community health workers are on the front lines in global communities. Unfortunately, many community health workers go unpaid; therefore, there can be mixed results when their services are paired with other health systems.
Helping Community Health Workers Help Others
Leadership in the UNAIDS talks recognized these issues and made plans to maximize the potential of community health workers. The participants determined that at least two million additional community health workers need to be deployed to reach the desired 90–90–90 targets. The 90-90-90 target means that 90 percent of people living with HIV know their status, 90 percent of people who know their status are accessing treatment and 90 percent of people on treatment are displaying suppressed viral loads.
The participants also strongly supported the establishment of a new international coalition of community health workers, as early as the summer of 2017. During talks, participants indicated that the formation of a coalition would foster the formation of national associations of community health workers. Ideally, these associations will unify community health workers, advocate for them and increase their overall impact on the HIV epidemic.
Kenly Sikwese, Co-Chair of the African Community Advisory Board, summed up the importance of community health workers in the battle against the HIV epidemic: “When HIV exploded in our countries, it was the community that provided care and treatment […] community health workers need to be integrated as an ongoing part of the health system.”
– Gisele Dunn