HIV and health workforce communities pledge collaboration, not competition

Call for next IAS conference to commit to bringing together 57 countries facing health workforce shortages to report on their actions to bridge the human resource gap for HIV universal access and break down stigma.

Leaders and experts in the fields of HIV and human resources for health have stressed that reaching universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support will not be possible unless both communities work much closer together, reject notions of 'competition' between the two responses and unless stigma within the health professions is seriously addressed.

At a Satellite event held on the opening day of the 2008 International AIDS Conference in Mexico, high profile speakers and panel members stressed that unified action will drive forward the common goals of a strengthened health sector and an effective scaling up of the HIV response.

"We have an opportunity now to link strategies for responding to AIDS with strategies for addressing the health workforce crisis," said UNAIDS Executive Director Dr Peter Piot, who gave opening remarks at the session. "The ultimate aim has to be better progress on both - and healthier populations as a result." Underlining the responses to HIV and the health workforce crisis as mutually interdependent, the session participants called for the next IAS conference to commit to bringing together the 57 countries estimated to be facing critical shortages of health workers together to report on the concrete work they have done and share experiences, so that the health workforce crisis becomes and integral part of the AIDS conference programme and agenda.

The serious shortage of health workers across the world - estimated to be at over 4 million - is recognized as one of the critical constraints to achieving international health goals, including the goal of universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support and the Millennium Development Goals. Conversely, the HIV epidemic has further exacerbated the health workforce crisis, by significantly increasing workload, while simultaneously devastating existing workforces in many of the most affected countries.

“With G8 and other high level political commitments on the health workforce, this is a critical time to ensure practical solutions are implemented. We must build on the impressive lessons learned and the momentum generated by the AIDS community so far to increase the quality and quantity of health workers, as part of the wider efforts to strengthen health systems," said Global Health Workforce Alliance Executive Director, Dr Mubashar Sheikh.

Organized jointly by the Global Health Workforce Alliance, UNAIDS and the International AIDS Society, the session emphasized how and where AIDS programmes are showing progress on strengthening health systems, particularly in the area of expanding the health workforce - with examples in countries such as Ethiopia shared by panellist and Ethiopian Minister of Health H. E Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus.

Focusing on the goal of reaching universal access, participants also discussed how health worker associations and AIDS organizations, including people living with HIV, can work closer together to combat HIV-related stigma and discrimination within the health professions to ensure greater access to services and increased support for health workers living with HIV.

Representatives from both communities acknowledged that despite efforts to reduce stigmatization, HIV and TB-related discrimination is still a serious problem within the health professions. People living with HIV in a number of countries are turned away by medical professionals, denied treatment and/or segregated from the rest of the patient population.

Pledging to ensure concrete action is taken to further develop initiatives and programmes to fight stigma and discrimination in the health workplace, the panellists - including the World Health Professionals Association - committed to human-rights based approach solutions, including the promotion of 'positive practice environment' campaigns, which include increased and improved anti-stigma training with an aim to improve the working environment for health care workers, optimize performance, retain health workers and promote 'care of the care provider.'

Closing and summing up the session, Sir George Alleyne, The UN Secretary General's special Envoy on AIDS in the Caribbean underlined the urgent need for the HIV and human resources for health communities to draw strength from each other and to move forwards towards universal access and breaking down stigma in parallel. "The health workforce is necessary for appropriate prevention, treatment and care of all world diseases including AIDS. Let all of us go from this place singing the tune we will never allow people to try to dichotomize this debate again,” he said.