Disability and HIV risk

Disability and HIV risk

People with disabilities face a particular risk of HIV infection due to the social disadvantages they live with every day. From the lack of specialized health services to sexual violence, this is a highly vulnerable population that deserves direct attention.

As explained by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a disability is a long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory deficiency that is capable of hindering the full participation of a person in society, under equal circumstances that the rest of the population.

The agency has estimated that almost 12% of the inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean live with at least one disability, which translates into approximately 66 million people.

Social limitations

The group of people with disabilities is very diverse, since there are disabilities that come from birth and others that are acquired during life, either due to deterioration as a result of age, accidents or environmental factors. This is why someone with a disability can be of any age, gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity and economic situation, explains the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, all these very different people share a generally adverse environment, where they encounter discrimination, stigmatization, poverty and exclusion from education and employment, in addition to significant barriers in health services where, many times, neither the facilities nor the staff are prepared to give them adequate attention.

Especially vulnerable

Disabilities can cause the person who has them to be discriminated against by their closest circle, to be perceived as childish or to be considered incapable of sharing spaces with people without disabilities. This social segregation makes them especially vulnerable to HIV, as detailed by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in a report published in 2010.

There are very few studies on the extent of HIV among people with disabilities, but in the case of the hearing impaired or deaf population, for example, infection levels equal to or higher than those of the general population were observed.

UNAIDS identified that the main reasons why someone with a disability is more exposed to HIV are:

• Risk behaviors, since there is no adequate access to HIV prevention and care services for these populations, so they do not receive information on how to protect themselves.

• Sexual violence is a problem that affects many people with disabilities throughout their lives, especially if they are women or girls.

• Exclusion from HIV prevention and care services, because they are not invited to approach them because it is assumed that they are not sexually active or that they would not engage in other risky behaviors, such as injecting drugs.

• Lack of sexual education, since it is estimated that children with disabilities are one third of all infants in the world who do not go to school, which is the place where they would have the possibility of receiving sexual education.

Absence of tools

When there are communication problems, such as deafness, blindness or some intellectual disabilities that make it difficult to speak or understand, health care cannot be completed.

There are probably very few health personnel who master sign language, or perhaps this language does not easily cover questions about sexuality. On the other hand, printed information strategies do not usually include Braille versions, and Internet campaigns should have special features so that a message can be read as well as heard.

Another important barrier is the lack of confidentiality in medical consultations or HIV detection tests. Being infantilized by their environment, people with disabilities will hardly go to a consultation alone and it will be their caregivers who carry out the procedures for them.

For all this, UNAIDS points out the importance of taking into account the needs of the population with disabilities when designing policies to prevent and care for HIV. This also implies designing specialized programs by age, sex, culture and language, and adapted to the various groups with disabilities.

Remember that, regardless of their physical or health condition, everyone has the right to protect themselves from HIV and to receive appropriate medical care if they have already been diagnosed. If you want to get a free detection test, come to AHF Latin America and the Caribbean and learn about all our services.