HIV & Poverty in the 21st century

Posted on: 5th March 2012

“I live at my friend’s house… she has two children. You know how it is. They love to eat – there usually isn’t enough food in the house for me to eat as well.”
Ana* looks away and clears her throat before quietly adding, “I sometimes skip taking my medication. It gives me such strong cramps if I don’t eat it with a meal. It’s terrible…. Very painful. I cannot bring myself to do it. There isn’t enough food in the house, and my friend has two children…”

Ana and I were having a catch-up on a busy Tuesday evening. I already knew she was facing challenging personal circumstances, including threats of eviction from her “friend” who was increasingly charging her more and more rent. But I was not aware of the very direct way her situation was affecting her health and her ability to regularly take her HIV treatment. Ana had to take out a loan from a group of her other friends, which she has little chance of repaying on her part-time job as a cleaner. It is only a matter of time before the stress of her situation, her food insecurity and the skipped medication lead to a deterioration in her health, making it in turn more difficult to go to work and continue supporting herself.

It’s often said that the relationship between HIV and poverty is “complex”, but from where I’m looking it seems exceedingly straightforward. HIV is a disease of poverty – poor families and individuals are much more likely to be exposed to the virus, and are much less likely to have the knowledge, resources and tools to be able to protect themselves and their loved ones.

A report on Poverty and HIV by the National Aids Trust (NAT) and Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) indicates that at least one in six people diagnosed with HIV in the UK between 2006 and 2009 experienced severe poverty. Moreover, people living with HIV can endure poor health, strong side effects and stigma that make it difficult to retain a job or get new employment; those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds may never have had the chance to complete formal education or benefit from crucial connections to help them find a job in this increasingly harsh economic climate. The loss of social support networks due to stigma and isolation can make bare survival difficult.

It’s not hard to see how destitution in all its forms – homelessness, food insecurity, poor access to stable medical care and treatment, inability to afford travel to appointments – in its turn impacts on HIV, and traps individuals in cycles of poverty and ill health. Alarmingly, the NAT/THT research found that levels of poverty amongst people living with HIV have been increasing dramatically in recent years. With the government’s concentrated attack on the social security system, the situation is likely to get much worse.

As if to add insult to injury, the government is now planning to change the rules so legal aid cannot be used to help people challenge welfare benefits decisions when mistakes are made. These cuts threaten to push people living with disabilities further into poverty. Inaccurate benefit decisions can deprive individuals of a vital source of income, and only expert advice allows them to challenge these decisions and make them right. Lord McNally is in charge of the government bill in the House of Lords, and you can email him urging the government to amend it to ensure thousands of people continue to benefit from expert legal advice.

Ensuring access to legal aid for disabled people is just one aspect of the massive struggle against poverty and HIV, but it is topical and presents a concrete action we can all take to protect the rights of some of the most disenfranchised members of society. At Body & Soul, we continue to struggle looking for grants and other small pots of money to help members like Ana who find themselves in difficult circumstances and are working hard to pull themselves out of poverty.

If you think you can help us in this fight, please get in touch. Likewise, if you are living with HIV and your life has been impacted by the recent government reforms to welfare benefits, please let us know below. It’s only by increasing awareness in society and generating a louder discussion about the human impact of these changes that we can hope to protect the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of society.

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