Tackle HIV/AIDS Stigma from All Fronts

While we can freely discuss health issues like polio or latest developments in cancer treatment – the mere whisper of the word HIV/AIDS sends shivers down the spines of many people.

HIV/AIDS stirs fear in most people – with many associating it with unspeakable suffering. But one can understand the reason behind that fear, which I believe is due to stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Many commentators concur that stigma is one of the defining characteristics of HIV/AIDS – differentiating it from dreaded diseases like cancer.
Most people start recoiling at the mere mention of HIV/AIDS because they have witnessed what has happened to people living with the virus because of stigma.
HIV/AIDS-related stigma has had a profound effect on the pandemic’s course. One of the reasons behind the World AIDS Day, observed annually on December 1, is to encourage voluntary testing and counselling.
Many people, however, shy away from such events not only out of fear of death, but also humiliation meted out on people living with the virus.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites fear of stigma, as the main reason why people are reluctant to be tested, to disclose their HIV status or to take antiretroviral drugs.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), HIV/AIDS continues to evoke widespread public fear and condemnation of those afflicted.
We hear chilling stories in our communities where people are living as outcasts because they have disclosed their HIV status.
The fear associated with HIV/AIDS has kept many people in darkness for fear of losing family, friends, home, job – hence, forcing them to hide their status.
So, no one can see, hear, or know the truths of those living with HIV and AIDS.
Often, when individuals die from AIDS-related illness, death announcements rarely mention the deceased’s HIV/AIDS status but only disclose the health conditions like TB or pneumonia.
Even on death certificates, – it is not indicated that someone died of AIDS complications.
In 2007, the Foundation for AIDS Research sponsored a survey of Americans’ attitudes about women living with HIV/AIDS.
The survey found that more than half are uncomfortable having an HIV-positive woman as their dentist, doctor, or child care provider.
Eighty-seven percent are uncomfortable dating someone who is HIV-positive. One in four was uncomfortable having an HIV-positive woman as a close friend.
According to AVERT, an international HIV/AIDS charity based in the UK, stigma severely hampers efforts to effectively fight the HIV and AIDS pandemic.
Fear of discrimination often prevents people from seeking treatment for AIDS or from admitting their HIV status publicly. People with (or suspected of having) HIV may be denied healthcare services and employment, or refused entry into a foreign country.
In some cases, families force them from home and friends and colleagues shun them.
The stigma attached to HIV/AIDS can extend to the next generation, placing an emotional burden on those left behind.
According to AVERT, there are several factors that contribute to HIV/AIDS-related stigma.
For instance, HIV/AIDS is a life-threatening disease, therefore, people react to it strongly.
HIV infection is associated with behaviours such as homosexuality, drug addiction, prostitution or promiscuity that are already stigmatised in many societies.
The fact that most people become infected with HIV through sex often carries moral baggage
Religious or moral beliefs lead some people to believe that being infected with HIV is the result of moral fault (such as promiscuity or 'deviant sex') that deserves to be punished.
How are we going to get people to come forward when the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS has created so much fear? People are hiding their HIV status.
Stigma and discrimination will continue to exist so long as society as a whole has a poor understanding of HIV/AIDS and the pain and suffering caused by negative attitudes and discriminatory practices.
AVERT noted that the fear and prejudice that lie at the core of the HIV/AIDS-related discrimination need to be tackled at community and national levels, with AIDS education playing a crucial role.
A more enabling environment needs to be created to increase the visibility of people with HIV/AIDS as a 'normal' part of any society.

June 2013
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