This year, World AIDS Day is marking its 30th anniversary. In the last 30 years, progress in medicine and science has meant that an HIV diagnosis is no longer viewed as a death sentence. The number of AIDS-related deaths have fallen to the lowest this century, with fewer than 1 million people dying each year from AIDS-related illnesses thanks to sustained access to antiretroviral therapy. People living with HIV are living long healthy productive lives.
However, globally, 25% of people living with HIV do not know their status and around 5 000 are becoming newly infected with HIV every day (unaids.org). HIV testing is a critical aspect to achieving the 90-90-90 targets. Testing empowers people to make choices about prevention and treatment which slows the progression of the HIV epidemic.
Benefits of testing
- Knowing one’s status is critical for promoting behaviour change amongst those who test negative and providing timely access to care, treatment and support services for those who test positive. Among the people living with HIV who know their status four out of 5 are accessing treatment (unaids.org).
- When people living with HIV know their status and have an undetectable viral load, they cannot transmit HIV sexually. 19.4 million people living with HIV do not have suppressed viral loads (unaids.org).
- When pregnant women living with HIV know their status and are on treatment, they can stop transmission of HIV to their babies.
The workplace can play a vital role in the HIV response through scaling up access to HIV testing and treatment for employees, their families and communities. An economic evaluation of the SWHAP South Africa Programme by Karolinksa Institutet showed that the workplace programmes were averting an average of 20.84 HIV infections per year (7.27 amongst employees and 13.57 among their sexual partners).
In the SWHAP network, onsite workplace wellness days (where HIV and other communicable and non-communicable disease testing is made available to employees) are helping to improve the accessibility of testing during work hours. This is helping to reach larger numbers of men who traditionally have lower testing uptake compared to women as SWHAP is operating in countries where the majority of the workforce in formal employment is male. Moreover, partnership with unions means that higher testing outcomes are being achieved as unions are able to advocate for their members to participate in the HIV and wellness initiatives.
Within the workplace, barriers to testing such as stigma, discrimination and fear of losing employment are addressed through; comprehensive HIV education sessions; multi-disease testing programmes that take HIV out of isolation; and workplace HIV and wellness policies that protect the rights of workers. Additionally, employee support programmes (with counselling, nutrition support and follow-up of positive employees) provide access to treatment and enhance adherence helping workers achieve viral suppression.
Supply chain and mentorship programmes are creating platforms for companies who have run HIV and wellness programmes for the last 14 years with SWHAP to share their experiences with their value chain. In 2017, such programmes meant that 153 workplaces were supported to set up workplace HIV and wellness programmes with access to testing for employees.
Community outreach initiatives such as the long-distance truck driver programme, are reaching key and vulnerable populations with information on HIV prevention, access to testing opportunities and referrals for treatment. Social dialogues in communities on GBV, harmful masculinities, HIV risk factors are helping to dispel myths and stigma associated with HIV paving the way for greater acceptance for testing and support of HIV positive peers.
At SWHAP we believe that knowledge is power and that employees that know their HIV status and general health risk profiles are empowered to make the right decisions to protect themselves and their families. This World AIDS Day, SWHAP joins UNAIDS and other actors in raising awareness about the importance of knowing ones’ status and promoting access to testing for employees their families and communities.