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HIV/AIDS: Disability, HIV find common ground

NEW YORK, 21 December 2010 (IRIN) - People living with disabilities are known to be just as, if not more, at risk of contracting HIV as non-disabled people, but there is little specific data or programming that reflects this reality on a global scale.

That is slowly starting to change, say HIV/AIDS and disability civil society leaders, as well as UN agency health officials, as connections between the divergent groups are growing stronger and the urgent need to address this gap is being made increasingly clear after years of internal stalled progress.

"There's just a real dearth of data," said Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World, an international HIV/AIDS advocacy organization based in New York. "If a country said, 'We don't have data on disability and HIV/AIDS', then that in itself is data, but we don't see that, even. The actual activity, the expression of will, is sporadic."

More than 600 million people - 10 percent of the global population - live with disabilities, and 80 percent of them live in developing countries. This population often struggles to gain access to sex education and health services, including HIV prevention and education materials.

Yet people with disabilities engage in the same sexual behaviours that the general population does, according to a landmark 2004 Yale University/World Bank report entitled HIV/AIDS and Individuals with Disability. Additionally, women with disabilities are more vulnerable to sexual exploitation and rape than non-disabled women.

Eighty-seven percent of disability advocates, programmes and institutions from 57 countries consider HIV/AIDS "of immediate concern" to the disabled populations they serve, the report showed.

But indications that speak to the impact HIV/AIDS has on the disabled community on a global scale largely stop there.

Initiatives

UNAIDS is now picking up the pieces, nearly seven years later, and is planning to investigate ongoing initiatives that link AIDS and disability, and what kind of engagement there has been with persons living with disabilities.

It is a start that will eventually lead to in-depth analysis of these connections, said Emilio Timpo, senior adviser to UNAIDS, and on programming specific to disabled persons.

Other UN agencies, like UNICEF, have also begun to focus more on the connections between HIV/AIDS and disability at the country level, said Ken Legins, senior advisor on HIV/AIDS and disability at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

UNICEF's Burkina Faso office recently conducted a study on HIV among people with disabilities aged 15-64, which revealed they were much more likely to be illiterate and out of school, and with limited access to information about HIV. They tended to have low incomes and their subjection to sexual abuse made them more likely to be forced into risky sex behaviours.

''When discussing HIV, disability gets left out because the group of people who work on these issues are often not a part of the discussion and we need to make sure that they are''
"The challenge is that the HIV community itself is not well connected with people who are advocates for disability at the country level," Legins told IRIN/PlusNews. "When discussing HIV, disability gets left out because the group of people who work on these issues are often not a part of the discussion and we need to make sure that they are."

Disability and HIV/AIDS were prominently featured in the main programme for the first time in an International AIDS Conference this past July, in Vienna, marking a sharp turn from the previous conference in Mexico City in 2008, said Donovan of AIDS Free World. The conference venue was not accommodating to disabled people and disability was sidelined to a satellite event, she said.

Communications gaps

UNAIDS recently co-sponsored a panel discussion on HIV/AIDS and disability in New York, sandwiched between World AIDS Day and the International Day of Persons with Disabilities - commemorative events that are usually kept separate, UNAIDS's Timpo said.

Disability will receive an even higher profile at the International AIDS Society conference in Washington D.C. in 2012, predicted Steve Estey, chair of the International Committee of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities.

The acceleration of inclusion has been "quite astonishing" since 2006, noted Estey, when "we were nowhere".

At the panel discussion in New York, though, questions circled around the communication gaps that have existed between the two communities for years, and why it has taken UN agencies so long to take action.

Eric Sawyer, civil society adviser to UNAIDS, said it was partly a function of working to scale-up basic services first.

"The UN system has been struggling just to get prevention messaging and treatment access available and accessible around the world," Sawyer said. "Once you are able to ensure people have that access, then you are able to increase the level of services. But of course we are working to ensure that the disabled have equal access and that is increasingly finding a place in people's consciousness."

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Education, Gender Issues, Governance, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews, PWAs/ASOs - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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