Migrants especially vulnerable to HIV and AIDS, experts say

On World AIDS day, officials say surge in cross-border migration complicates universal access to retroviral therapy

As HIV infection rates steadily decline globally, and with experts stating that the end of AIDS is within reach, special focus must be placed on vulnerable migrant populations to make sure the disease can be fully eradicated, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Tuesday to mark World AIDS Day.

“A more comprehensive, concerted and collaborative effort is needed if the international community is to make progress towards ensuring the health of migrants and migrant communities,” IOM Director of Migrant Health Davide Mosca said in a statement.

“We need innovations for vulnerable populations, promotion of local leadership and a firm stand on the rights of migrants to healthcare access and non-discriminatory services,” he added.

The United Nations agency UNAIDS notes that since 2000, new HIV infections across the world have dropped 35 percent, with 15 million patients currently accessing treatment. But IOM warns that migrants and refugees fleeing violence demand special attention because they don’t have access to the necessary medication while in transit.

Women and girls, particularly from East and Southern Africa, are especially vulnerable to contracting HIV, according to the IOM. Women account for 58 percent of people living with HIV, according to a 2015 United Nations report. Many people fleeing to Europe come from Eritrea, South Sudan.

“We need to disaggregate such evidence to ensure migrant women and girls are also covered in diagnostic, treatment and care interventions,” said Mosca.

More than 878,000 people — most fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Eritrea — have crossed European borders this year, according to the IOM, with more than 3,500 dying during the journey. Once inside the European Union, many live in squalid conditions in migrant camps with little access to medical services or facilities.

Medical charity Doctors of the World has repeatedly raised alarm over conditions in a migrant camp in Calais, France, where about 4,000 people rely on limited medical assistance.

More sophisticated methods to eradicate HIV at Calais, such as retroviral therapies, are difficult, if not impossible, to access. The lack of medical care has resulted in an uptick of common maladies such as scabies and gastrointestinal diseases.

Health experts warn, however, that there is no “systematic” connection between the resettlement of refugee populations and the importation of infectious diseases. There have been no significant outbreaks of infections since the start of the EU refugee crisis, according to Ali Zumla, an infectious diseases professor at University College London, and health experts at the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House. They have warned European leaders against stigmatizing refugees.

Eastern European nations have refused to agree to the bloc’s refugee quota system to more equally distribute people across the continent, citing security and health risks that would disproportionally burden their populations.

“Mass movements of people do carry some health risks,” Chatam House said on Monday. “But collective health security in relation to refugees is better understood as a danger of socioeconomic inequality.”

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