Life at the Margins: Understanding Social Determinants of HIV/AIDS on Women's Health Through Multidisciplinary Translational Research

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside community has the highest rates of HIV infection and the poorest health outcomes in Canada. Female sex workers in the community are among those at highest risk of infection. The limited success of public health programs and harm reduction interventions in this population reflect the multiple barriers that compromise their access to care. This includes socioeconomic factors such as poverty and unstable housing, the stigma associated with sex work, multiple addictions, and limited autonomy and personal choice. Disease control and harm reduction measures typically focus on individual responsibility, and often do not accommodate for the influences that can increase HIV risk and diminish autonomy among women in the downtown eastside. Susan Berkhout is utilizing an alternative framework developed from contemporary feminist and bioethics literature on ”relational autonomy” in order to more accurately characterize HIV risk behavior, and to produce more effective prevention and treatment strategies aimed at reducing HIV risk among female sex workers. This model considers the socioeconomic and cultural influences, and relationships involved in sex work and injection drug use. The findings should contribute to new harm reduction strategies tailored for this population, provide ethical guidance for researchers working with members of vulnerable populations, and help health care providers enhance autonomy in female sex workers.