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How do we end HIV/AIDS? Start by treating people as humans, not criminals.

Though HIV infection rates have been on the decline overall, some countries are still struggling. Here's how law enforcement can help.

How do we end HIV/AIDS? Start by treating people as humans, not criminals.
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Open Society Foundations

Fighting the spread of HIV might come from an unexpected source: law enforcement.

How? For starters, by treating people like people.

What do we mean? Check it out:


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Though HIV infection rates have been on the decline in much of the world, certain population groups are actually experiencing an increase in new infections.

There are roughly 35 million people worldwide living with HIV/AIDS; more than half aren't aware that they are HIV+. Economic factors play a huge role in pinpointing areas experiencing high rates of new infections.

The problem is made worse through a combination of stigma, financial hardship, and perhaps surprisingly, law enforcement.

When treated, HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it once was. One of the reasons the virus continues to thrive in certain parts of the world, however, stems from the fact that law enforcement groups have a habit of targeting people at the highest risk — such as sex workers or intravenous drug users.

But why would you make it harder for people — real human beings — to protect themselves? Doesn't that go against the purpose of law enforcement?

In a number of countries, being caught by police with syringes or even just condoms has been used as evidence that someone is (or plans to) commit a crime. Up until May 2014, police confiscating condoms from suspected sex workers to use as evidence was standard even in New York City. Doing this increases the likelihood of someone engaging in high-risk, minimal-protection activity.

But why would you make it harder for people — real human beings — to protect themselves? Doesn't that go against the purpose of law enforcement?

Image of a sign in Simonga Village, Zambia. Photo by Jon Rawlinson/Flickr.

Needle exchanges and condom distribution programs have been a huge success.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has endorsed needle exchanges and methadone maintenance programs as effective ways to combat new HIV infections among intravenous drug users. Syringe exchange programs basically give a safe way to dispose of used syringes and obtain sterile syringes at no cost.

They found that police-supported needle exchanges, combined with on-site HIV screenings, lead to a reduction in new infections.

Photo of clean needles from a needle exchange program in Washington state. Photo by Joe Mabel/Wikimedia.

The same goes for free condom distribution programs, which have been found to significantly affect condom use behaviors, making a drastic reduction in HIV and STI transmission. Again, like the needle exchange programs, these are only effective if done right, with support of law enforcement and local government.

Like all things, it starts with building trust.

"By supporting programs that work with the key populations to reduce their risk of HIV infection, law enforcement officials can make a significant contribution to public health and public safety and ensure that the fundamental right to health of all citizens is protected." — United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime

Law enforcement agencies cannot be seen as enemies to sex workers and IV drug users. Community outreach is important, and decriminalizing these nonviolent crimes and showing good faith support to those engaging in these activities is key to building trust. So long as drug users and sex workers worry that they risk arrest with each police interaction, there will be no true trust.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
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Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
True

Glenda moved to Houston from Ohio just before the pandemic hit. She didn't know that COVID-19-related delays would make it difficult to get her Texas driver's license and apply for unemployment benefits. She quickly found herself in an impossible situation — stranded in a strange place without money for food, gas, or a job to provide what she needed.

Alone, hungry, and scared, Glenda dialed 2-1-1 for help. The person on the other end of the line directed her to the Houston-based nonprofit Bread of Life, founded by St. John's United Methodist pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus.

For nearly 30 years, Bread of Life has been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS prevention, eliminating food insecurity, providing permanent housing to formerly homeless individuals and disaster relief.

Glenda sat in her car for 20 minutes outside of the building, trying to muster up the courage to get out and ask for help. She'd never been in this situation before, and she was terrified.

When she finally got out, she encountered Eva Thibaudeau, who happened to be walking down the street at the exact same time. Thibaudeau is the CEO of Temenos CDC, a nonprofit multi-unit housing development also founded by the Rasmuses, with a mission to serve Midtown Houston's homeless population.

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