Professor Helen Rees gives opening presentation at STRIVE 2014 Annual Meeting

Professor Helen Rees challenges the HIV field

03 June 2014
Sephy Valuks and Annie Holmes

Opening STRIVE’s annual meeting in Johannesburg, the Executive Director of Wits RHI drew attention to key affected populations in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Rees presented a wide variety of findings and statistics in order to define and characterise key populations on the continent, outlining their rates of, and vulnerabilities to, HIV:

  • orphans
  • female sex workers (FSW)
  • migrant labourers and their partners (particularly miners)
  • male prisoners
  • men who have sex with men (MSM)
  • transgender individuals

She juxtaposed the HIV risks that these groups face with the broader challenges in their lives as a result of poverty, stigma, homophobia and hate crimes.

“Can we reduce HIV incidence in sub-Saharan Africa unless we focus on key populations and their human rights?”

Professor Helen Rees, OBE

Detailing HIV-related punitive laws for MSM and FSW, she underlined the work by local and international agencies including UNDP, WHO, UNFPA, UNAIDS and the Network of Sex Worker Projects to oppose unjust laws and regulations against sex workers.

The founder of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute was welcoming STRIVE members from India, Tanzania, Uganda, the UK and the US to the consortium’s annual meeting, held in Rosebank, Johannesburg , 19–22 May 2014.

In much of Africa, particularly southern Africa, HIV/AIDS has been seen as a generalised epidemic, rather than a concentrated epidemic as in India, for example, where prevention and treatment efforts focus on key populations. Challenging this distinction, Professor Rees went on to ask what a key-population lens would mean for sub-Saharan Africa.

  • What would it mean, for instance, to characterise young women as a key population?
  • How does the treatment cascade in sub-Saharan Africa create more of a challenge for key populations?
  • If funds for HIV services are becoming more stretched, what chances exist for key populations?

Professor Helen Rees is one of South Africa’s best known scientists. Her research interests include HIV/AIDS prevention, STIs, microbicides, HIV and HPV vaccines and broader issues relating to women’s health. In 2001 she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) for her contribution to global health and the South African health sector.

Photo credit: Fhatuwani Tshikororo, Wits RHI