Spotlight on the African Health Project
Since 2003, our African Health Project has worked with local African communities to help improve the health and wellbeing of people across Scotland. Here we take a closer look at the work of the project...
Where did it all begin?
The African Health Project began in Edinburgh 17 years ago, to support the growing number of African people choosing to make Scotland their home.
From the outset, we wanted the project to support people affected by HIV, but quickly realised that we needed to take a much broader view of the health of African communities if we wanted it to be successful.
Over the years, we’ve been able to widen the reach of the project, with additional teams in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Forth Valley, alongside some Scotland-wide work.
How does HIV affect Scotland’s African communities?
Although HIV can affect anyone, there are groups in Scotland that are more affected by the condition than others – including people from African communities.
Today in Scotland, almost one in five people living with HIV identify as African, despite the fact that African communities only make up around 1% of the total population. African people are also more likely to be diagnosed late, which means they are more likely to become ill as a result of HIV.
‘One of the biggest challenge we face working with African communities is the strong faith beliefs that in some situations lead individuals to rely solely on faith healing even if they are clinically diagnosed with HIV.’
AHP Health Improvement Worker
Stigma and a lack of knowledge about HIV is a big factor in these trends, with understanding of the condition among African people influenced by wider cultural and religious beliefs about sex and relationships.
For people living with HIV, this stigma can lead to isolation from the community, a breakdown of family relationships and problems with their physical and mental health.
Alongside the impact on individuals, stigma also has an effect on the community as a whole, allowing myths and fear about HIV to spread and putting people off accessing testing to know their status.
How does the African Health Project help?
We do a lot of prevention work, trying to raise awareness of HIV in the community. However, because of the stigma surrounding the condition, we have to find creative ways to do this so that people will work with us.
The team, who all come from various African communities themselves, invest a lot of time in developing relationships with local community groups and businesses to build trust – something that service users have told us makes a big difference.
‘In the African community, talking about sex, STIs or condoms is taboo. Most of the time people don’t say anything to us but, going by the uptake of the condoms, we know they are using them.'
African Business Owner - Glasgow
Rather than talking about HIV straight away, which could put people off, we often start by talking about other issues that get in the way of people staying well. This includes things like immigration and housing, and helping people to access other local services that don’t necessarily speak directly to African communities.
Once people know us, we can then start to bring HIV into the conversation, challenging myths and stigma. In particular, we run workshops with local groups, providing the facts about HIV, getting people talking about their sexual health, and giving people the chance to access community-based HIV testing. We also provide free condoms to local venues.
If people come to us with a positive diagnosis, we’re there to provide support, helping them to understand the condition, manage their treatment, meet other people for peer support, and talk about HIV with their family and friends.
The ambition is to ensure that more people are able to know their HIV status earlier, helping to reduce new HIV infections and allowing those living with HIV to access treatment that can help them stay healthy.
Can you give us an example?
One example of our community-based approach is the national Health in Faith initiative, which builds on the important role that faith and religion play in African communities.
Within communities, local pastors are important and respected figures, and we work with these faith leaders to take conversations about HIV and sexual health to people.
‘When I was able to stand up and say, ‘I’ve met these people and they have opened my eyes. I want you all to benefit too', people were willing to put their trust in that.’
African Pastor - Glasgow
By building relationships with individual pastors, we have been able to deliver a range of HIV awareness and testing workshops with congregations in churches – something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
The approach takes information about HIV to where people are, making it as easy as possible for them to have the opportunity to find out more. This work is contributing to challenging HIV stigma, encouraging people to know their HIV status, and ensuring that people living with the condition can access the support they need to live well.