Redefining Health Workers for a Workplace Community in Central America

By Sara Weinstein, Senior Project Officer, MSH

Panama is known for the Panama Canal and its isolated islands with white sandy beaches, but the country also has the second highest HIV prevalence rate in Central America. The USAID-funded LMG/PASCA Program is using an innovative approach to addressing the HIV epidemic by working directly with the private sector to raise awareness.

PASCA helps six countries in Central America (Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama) to develop and implement policies that address the HIV epidemic. The project works with the private sector, both directly with companies as well as with industry associations, to raise awareness about HIV among workers. Considering the employees of a company a public health community, PASCA and partners targeted leaders to serve as resources for HIV information within their personal and professional communities – roles community health workers have typically held. By redefining the terms community and health worker, PASCA’s HIV prevention messages reach wider populations.

In late 2014, PASCA began to work with SumarSE, a non-profit association that promotes corporate social responsibility within Panama’s private sector, and whose name roughly translates to 'get on board with corporate social responsibility.' As of 2013, SumarSE included 113 companies, 66 NGOs, eight unions and four universities. PASCA, together with UNAIDS and the Corporate Red Ribbon Committee of Panama, is implementing a three-phase project to sensitize the private sector about HIV. Phase One, which includes prevention campaigns and information sessions to leaders of the private sector, kicked off in January 2015 with an initial meeting with leaders of 50 SumarSE members.

In early February 2015, the first campaign to raise awareness about HIV prevention within the private sector was launched. Individuals from 97 companies and organizations participated in the campaign, which included the launch of the “information is prevention” (“informarse es prevenir”) campaign. Campaign themes included HIV prevention messages, the importance of creating prevention and non-discrimination policies; and confidentiality around HIV testing.

The individuals who participated in the campaign then became reliable sources of information about HIV within their companies and families. The campaign was supported by PASCA, UNAIDS, Probidsida (association of HIV-positive people), and the Ministry of Health of Panama.

SumarSE “informarse es prevenir” campaign ad


Teresa de Alfaro, Executive Director of SumarSE, says that the private sector has really taken to this initiative. She stated, “With this campaign, more than 50,000 people now have more information about HIV and the contact information for organizations that are specialists on these subjects, and who seek to bust myths and taboos about the disease.”

The representative of the Corporate Red Ribbon Committee of Panama indicates that the campaign attempts to break down the paradigm of fear, sending a positive message and educating people about HIV. She adds that the campaign helps private sector leaders and human resources personnel understand the two most important principles of HIV in the workplace policies – anti-discrimination and confidentiality of testing.

Now that this first phase of the project is complete, PASCA will continue to support SumarSE in Phases Two and Three. In Phase Two, SumarSE will form a committee of companies that wish to develop HIV in the workplace policies. In Phase Three, SumarSE will program a conversation with business leaders and CEOs during the 2015 Corporate Social Responsibility Week. This conversation will focus on the need to adopt coordinated and sustainable measures to address HIV and reaffirm their personal commitment to develop and implement HIV policies, recognizing that successful implementation of effective policies will have a positive impact on their companies’ social and economic performance.