The Human Side of HIV/AIDS

Carie MuntiferingIn the closing ceremony of the International AIDS Conference last week, Nancy Pelosi quoted George Bernard Shaw stating, “It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.” Pelosi went on to say that she believes everyone in the room was moved throughout the week by statistics but that we were also moved by stories. I couldn’t agree more.

I had never attended the International AIDS Conference before this year but I have been to many other conferences and I am used to attending sessions that describe public health issues in terms of multivariate analyses and odds ratios. Don’t get me wrong, as a researcher by training I get very excited by p-values less than 0.05, but to keep my interest I also need to feel connected, inspired, and guided by the human side of public health. This is exactly what the International AIDS Conference delivered. Presentations ranged from statistically savvy to emotionally charged and nearly every session included a mix of researchers, program implementers, activists, community leaders, and civil society members, creating a holistic view of HIV/AIDS and the challenges we must overcome if we are going to turn the tide.

The inclusion of a diverse group of panelists and audience members in sessions resulted in a different dialogue than I am used to hearing at a conference. Scientific findings and progress were still highlighted throughout, and rightfully so, but at the heart of many sessions was the recognition that while science has made significant progress, we continue to fail in meeting the needs of many of the people infected and affected by HIV, especially women. From workshops to abstract sessions to the closing plenary, I heard again and again an emphasis on how we will only succeed in the fight against HIV and AIDS if we recognize, understand, and address its human side through a collaborative and rights-based approach.  

Promising practices and potential solutions to these complex issues were discussed and commitments were made to do better. As a monitoring, evaluation, and research advisor for CapacityPlus, I asked myself at the end of the conference what “better” might mean for our research activities relating to the health workforce. It is clear that a significant gap in the quantity and equitable distribution of health workers persists, and improved methods for monitoring and evaluating the production, deployment, and retention of health workers are needed.

The health workforce need, however, extends beyond sheer numbers to the quality of care health workers provide. For example, there is a need to know how health workers’ attitudes, beliefs, and training influence their ability to provide high-quality and compassionate care that upholds the rights of people living with HIV. Studies are also needed to determine successful and innovative strategies for training and supporting health workers to fill the enormous and expanding role we are asking them to play in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Over the next year, CapacityPlus will be assessing the feasibility and acceptability of a mLearning refresher training course for health workers in Senegal as a promising new strategy for reaching remote and rural health workers with information and updates that are necessary for them to do their job well. Health workers are a key component to turning the tide and we must do better in training and supporting them in providing care that extends beyond a biomedical approach to a more holistic one that recognizes the human side of HIV/AIDS. 

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Photo by Carol Bales.