I am scared.
I think I have the disease that everyone talks about. Other women warned me to be careful with my clients. My mind is buzzing with questions.
Where do I go to get help? Will people see me if I go to a clinic to get tested? What happens if I am positive? Will I die? Will I have to stop working?
I am afraid.
Jamilah, a sex worker in Kenya, is afraid of finding out her HIV status because of stigma and fear of living with the disease. She is unsure of how to get help and what will happen after she is tested.
But a community health worker, Mariam, who is also a sex worker living with HIV, connects people in her community to the nearby HIV clinic.
Mariam meets with Jamilah and listens to her questions. She calms Jamilah’s fears. She sits with Jamilah at the clinic as she nervously waits to find out her status.
Through rapid testing at the clinic, Jamilah finds out she is positive. While the news is overwhelming and frightening, Jamilah is able to receive counseling and initiation of treatment from a nurse on the same day. The nurse teaches Jamilah how to manage her HIV for the rest of her life, including preventing transmission to partners and during pregnancy.
Feeling less afraid and supported by the community health worker and nurse she interacted with, Jamilah is empowered to face her HIV-positive status. Because she had a positive experience, Jamilah will return to the clinic regularly to monitor the disease.
Through the support of health workers, Jamilah is confident that she can live with HIV.
Community and facility health workers, like those in Jamilah’s story, are the backbone of health systems. They connect people to clinical services, provide emotional support, perform diagnostic tests, advise and counsel, and combat stigma by providing critical services to patients who need it most.
This week marks World Health Worker Week. As we thank the world’s health workers, it is also important to recognize the invaluable role they will play in the coming years as we look to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Health workers will be a driving force towards achieving at least nine of the 17 SDGs.
Health workers go beyond providing patient care; they also act as agents of socioeconomic development, leading countries to advance education and employment opportunities, especially for women, and increase the productivity of the population.
To keep a robust health workforce, systems and policies must be created to have health workers in the right places at the right time with the right support. Currently, the World Health Organization (WHO) is finalizing its Global Strategy on Human Resources for Health, which focuses in part on optimizing the existing health workforce.
Here at USAID, we are establishing programs in alignment with this strategy, focusing on optimizing health workers’ service delivery in order to reach an AIDS-free generation.
The global community is currently transitioning to new HIV treatment guidelines, known as Test and START, which will require a significant amount of support from health workers to be implemented.
These guidelines recommend starting antiretroviral therapy as soon as a person is diagnosed with HIV instead of waiting until the person gets sick from the disease. This means an additional 37 million people living with HIV are now eligible for this treatment. Expanding coverage is critical to achieving the 90-90-90 goals of the Joint United Nations Programme for HIV/AIDS.
Since most areas with high rates of HIV face health worker shortages, there is an urgency to evaluate the impact of health workers and how we train the existing workforce so they can better connect people with life-saving care and treatment for HIV.
The bottom line is that if we want to achieve an AIDS-free generation, a key component will be to better optimize the available workforce for HIV/AIDS services.
But what does optimization mean?
It means being creative and efficient about the way we use health workers based in hospitals, health clinics and communities to make HIV service delivery effective and sustainable.
It means investigating how community health workers, like Mariam, can be more effectively trained and distributed across communities and in healthcare facilities to support outreach and testing.
It means figuring out how to be more effective in administering antiretrovirals at all points of care, such as communities, health clinics and hospitals.
It means improving the quality of training for laboratory workforces and creating efficient lab systems to support health workers in scaling up viral load testing.
It means examining the skill mix of doctors, nurses, midwives, and community-based health workers to meet the needs of all patients, including adolescent girls and other key populations.
As we celebrate health workers this week and honor their important role in creating healthy, resilient and productive societies, we must direct our focus and investment to overcoming key barriers so we can maximize their impact.
Jamilah and millions of others living with HIV and AIDS are counting on us.