A great concern of many public health professionals is the large numbers of men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender people in Asia not accessing HIV testing and counselling (HTC). Even with such great concerns, there is very little real data that exists adequately measuring the scale of this problem, or the reasons behind it.
In order to better understand why MSM and transgender people are not accessing these vital health services, the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) is joining other regional development and community partners to convene a consultation on “Regional Meeting on Community-based HIV testing: Challenges and Opportunities” this October in Bangkok, Thailand. Having such information would greatly increase future efforts at regional and country level to ensure that community demand for HIV testing is created, alongside new testing delivery models that will better address community needs.
“It is important that community voices are heard, they have to be central in creating demand and improving the take-up for these vital services and it is hoped this event will provide real insights into how this can be achieved,” said Midnight Poonkasetwattana, executive director of APCOM.
Concerns over poor coverage, access and supportive environments, held by a number of community members, will be high priority for the many community-based organisations attending the consultation.
“Many current testing models still have a lot to achieve in terms of reaching communities and enabling them access to testing services. However, in scaling up we should ensure the rights of people being tested, and that ethical guidelines are in place. Such issues will also be taken up in the consultation,” said Malu S. Marin, regional coordinator of the Coalition of Asia-Pacific Regional Networks on HIV/AIDS (7 Sisters), one of the conveners of the Regional Consultation.
While access to HIV treatment and care services have expanded in Asia and the Pacific region (44 % of people in need had access to treatment in 2011), access to and uptake of HIV testing among key populations (MSM; sex workers; transgender, people who use drugs and their partners) remains low. More than 50% of people living with HIV are not aware of their HIV status. Many individuals learn of their HIV status at the hospital when diagnosed with an opportunistic infection occurring from advanced disease. This late diagnosis drives the steady increase of annual AIDS-related deaths. There are already some examples of effective interventions. In China in 2012, GZTZ used the Internet to mobilize as many as 5,389 MSM into HIV testing, accounting for 83% of the city’s yearly total.
The consultation will have representatives from the government sectors, essential to understand the communities’ views of HTC and their experiences with service providers, and perform a critical analysis of the current HIV testing models in the region.
“We know people reach HIV treatment, care, and the full range of prevention options through the gateway of HIV Testing and Counseling (HTC). Our colleagues in China, at GZTZ, highlighted to us how innovation, through the use of the Internet, could prove effect in scaling up HIV testing services amongst MSM. We hope this meeting with facilitate more sharing and learning on this important topic,” Poonkasetwattana said.
APCOM hopes to draw attention to more examples, similar to that in China, through the launch of their new Highlight series focusing on evidence-based examples of good practices in the region.