The uneven distribution of HIV risks and burdens across populations is a well-substantiated fact, though seldom publicly acknowledged. Gay men and other men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, sex workers, and transgender women are 24, 24, 13.5, and 49 times more likely to acquire HIV, respectively, than other reproductive aged adults (15 years old and older). Globally, new infections among these key populations account for 45% of all new HIV infections. This figure is likely to be an underestimate, given the intense stigma associated with disclosing and reporting acquisition risks for HIV among gay men, people who use drugs, sex workers, and transgender people. In addition, HIV epidemics in the majority of low- and middle-income countries (90 of 120) have concentrated epidemics among key populations. In countries with more broadly generalized epidemics, risks are still not evenly distributed and key populations still shoulder disease burden that is markedly disproportionate.

Specific interrelated determinants converge to create the higher probability of HIV infection among key populations (biological, social, structural). For example, key populations are rendered vulnerable to HIV by discriminatory laws and politically driven policies, creating stressors that exacerbate risk for HIV acquisition and make the problem of HIV worse. In addition, the absence of protective laws and policies, and the failure of governments to uphold rights also enables the persistence of unchecked stigma and discrimination in healthcare and social service settings. These barriers to healthcare means untreated sexually transmitted infections and therefore heightened risk for HIV infection and transmission.

Propelled by the introduction of powerful and life-saving antiretroviral medications, the increasingly bio-medicalized global HIV response challenges us to rigorously reimagine prevention. While this is a welcome development in the global response to HIV, access to medical interventions is hampered by the costs of medicines, healthcare, testing and monitoring, and the politics of funding. In addition, gay and bisexual men, people who use drugs, sex workers, and transgender people are not prioritized for antiretroviral treatment or are offered only a limited number of places in treatment programs because these groups are not seen as deserving. Moralistic decision-making about who should have access to treatment is common (e.g., the requirement of absolute abstinence from drug use as a condition for services).