By Freddie Allen
NNPA Senior Washington Correspondent
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Most non-medical HIV health care workers earned a “D” when surveyed on the science and treatment of the virus, according to a new report released this week by the Black AIDS Institute.
While 70 percent of the HIV workers scored below 70 percent or the equivalent of an academic “D” grade, just 4 percent earned an “A,” the report said that “The average score on treatment-related questions was 56%, or an ‘F.’”
The Black AIDS Institute (BAI), a national HIV/AIDS think tank focused solely on Black people, surveyed more than 3,600 non-medical health care workers from AIDS service organizations, community-based groups and state and local health departments, “making it the largest ever knowledge assessment of the HIV/AIDS workforce and the first time that anyone looked at the level of science and treatment knowledge in the workforce,” said Phill Wilson, the president and CEO of the Institute.
More than 70 percent of the workers polled said that their organization offered prevention services, 62 percent provided treatment and prevention education, while nearly 50 percent offered treatment and care.
“Black-serving organizations represented the majority (56%) of organizations represented in the survey, with nearly one in three organizations serving people living with HIV (35%) and men who have sex with men (32%),” stated the report. “Seventy-five percent of participants were employees, 12% were consultants, and 13% were volunteers.”
Respondents from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Missouri recorded the highest average scores and North Carolina, Georgia and Florida recorded the lowest scores.
“HIV has evolved over time and today some of the main tools that we use to fight HIV are biomedical tools,” said Wilson. “In order to use those tools you have to have a competency in science and treatment.”
Although better tools exist today, health care professionals who work in the HIV/AIDS field worry that they may not have the labor force skilled enough to properly use those tools.
With a new infection rate that is eight times the new infection rate for Whites, Blacks account for 44 percent of all new infections in adolescents and adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Hispanics account for 21 percent of new infections.
Despite increased exposure to the effects of the AIDS epidemic, Black and Hispanic HIV health care workers tested lower than their White peers on the survey.
“This is true even after controlling for education, region of residence, time working in the AIDS field, or any other variable taken into account in the survey,” stated the report.
Wilson said that despite the disproportionate rate of HIV infections among Blacks and Latinos, HIV/AIDS awareness has historically been lower and the stigma associated with the disease has been higher in both communities.
“African Americans and Hispanic respondents may be entering the HIV field with a lower knowledge base concerning HIV/AIDS which increases the need for having training when bringing new staff on board,” said Wilson.
Wilson continued: “We do know that there are elevated levels of stigma in the Black and Latino communities around HIV. People who are entering the field who are Black and Latino are coming into the field with some of that baggage and that may influence their knowledge.”
The stigma is connected to knowledge, Wilson added, and when you increase knowledge you can reduce the stigma.
“If the non-medical healthcare providers and the outreach workers don’t have a high enough level of literacy, they are not equipped to fight the conspiracy theories that are pervasive in our community,” said Wilson. “The more knowledge they have the better equipped they are to address those issues that are in our community.”
Wilson said as more and more people get treatment and have a positive response to the treatment, the stigma will go down.
“This is not the AIDS epidemic of 1986, or 1996 or even 2000,” said Wilson. “Too many people, particularly in our community, still have memories of the old ways that you got tested where there was blood drawn and you had to wait a week or 10 days. Today, you can get an HIV test for free, there’s not necessarily any blood, it can be an oral swab or a finger prick, you can get the results back in a minute; you can even get the results in the comfort of your own home.”
The use of biomedical prevention tools has also emerged.
“In 2011, the HIV prevention enterprise dramatically changed with the release of results from the HPTN 052 trial, which found that antiretroviral therapy reduced the risk of sexual HIV transmission by 96 percent,” the report explained. “The implications of this landmark study were immediately apparent. The very drugs that have transformed HIV infection from an automatic death sentence to one that is often chronic and manageable also have the potential to stop the epidemic in its tracks.”
Wilson said that the most exciting recent developments in the field are the new scientific biomedical prevention tools.
“We now have the ability to potentially reduce HIV transmission by 96 percent,” said Wilson. “What that requires is for us to help people living with HIV to get linked, to care to stay in care and to reach viral suppression.”
Wilson noted that the survey is not an overall evaluation of the knowledge of the workforce, just an analysis of the science and treatment knowledge of the workforce.
“Treatment as prevention is new,” said Wilson. “[Pre-exposure prophalaxis] is new. A lot of these biomedical interventions have only come onboard over the last few years.We’re not saying that [HIV health care workers] have low knowledge about everything, they just have a low knowledge in this particular area.”
Wilson said that it’s important that non-medical health care workers receive training on the current HIV science and treatment tools, because Black people are disproportionately impacted by HIV and that Blacks are also the ones who are going to be disproportionately getting their HIV health care from clinicians who are not HIV specialists.
As more people gain access to health care under the Affordable Care Act, including people who are infected with HIV and those suffering from AIDS-related diseases, health care professionals have to evolve to meet the growing needs of the new consumers.
“We are calling for a national push for increased science and treatment knowledge in the HIV workforce,” said Wilson. “Because that is what it’s going to take to end the AIDS epidemic.”