Ridding the world of HIV stigma

Today we mark World AIDS Day, an opportunity for people everywhere to unite against HIV and AIDS, and show our support to those living with it. Over 100,000 people in the UK are HIV positive, with 34 million suffering worldwide. It’s one of the most devastating pandemics in history and yet so many people remain ignorant about it, it’s time to educate ourselves in order to save lives.

I remember learning about HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) during our sex education lessons at school, it was merely presented as a possible STI and left at that, I didn’t spend any time thinking about it after that, and I don’t know anyone who did. Having being born in the early nineties, I knew very little about the stigma of the virus from the previous decade, and only became truly aware of its impacts during my time in South Africa, earlier this year. We were given specific training on how to deal with the subject, how to teach prevention, acceptance, and guidance. I knew that the SA population had a high percentage who were HIV positive, with the greatest increases of new infections among young people, so I expected that most would know the basic information, how it was transmitted, how to get diagnosed, and how to prevent it; I was shocked by what we discovered.

The young people we taught knew next to nothing about HIV and AIDS. Even kids in their mid to late teens were fairly clueless. I listened to so many of them as they tried to convince me it could be spread by using the same fork as someone who had it; the same toilet; swimming pool; kissing. A lot of them refused to believe us it could only be transmitted through blood and sexual intercourse. As we looked into it more we realised their lack of knowledge stemmed from one thing, the HIV stigma. It was never spoken about. If you had contracted the virus in some way then you were to keep quiet for fear of being harassed and neglected. The words were treated as taboo, and even parents in the know-how refused to speak about it with their children. Honestly, I didn’t understand it. To me it was a horrible illness, one that needed care and attention, but I could not wrap my head around why people were so judgemental about the person carrying it. If anything, these people needed more love and care, to have the support to see them through. There was also a strong belief in HIV/AIDS being a death sentence. Despite the medication available, so many people believed they would only have a short life if they were HIV positive. Again it took a lot of convincing that the ARVs (antiretroviral therapy) would help them, and allow them to live long, happy lives.

As we tackled these issues each day I became convinced that their lack of knowledge was rare, and that it was different back in the UK, that the stigma was gone. I’ve been sad to learn over the last few weeks that this is wrong.

With Charlie Sheen (American comedian) admitting he is HIV Positive, and the Sun’s Hollywood HIV Panic headline, we’re right back to thirty years ago, with pain and shame linked to every diagnosis. Since these stories broke it’s become scarily obvious that we know very little regarding the illness. A lot of schools are getting the facts wrong, or ignoring the issue altogether; it’s being judged by the public, and horrendously portrayed in the media. People are afraid to get tested, thinking that the shame of a diagnosis is worse than the effects of the illness; the fear of the stigma has become so great that it’s costing lives. We don’t judge people when they suffer from cancer, or heart failure, so why do we judge those with HIV? It’s time to educate ourselves on HIV and AIDS, the more we know, the less afraid we will be, and the more help we can provide.

To find out more about HIV and AIDS, check out the great HIV Aware website.

Image by jacinta lluch valero via Flickr/Creative Commons

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