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HIV: why the stigma surrounding the condition needs to change

As misinformation about HIV continues to circulate in 2019, this inhibits the prevention and treatment of the condition, whilst isolating individuals living with HIV.

After receiving threats from a tabloid about publishing his HIV status, Gareth Thomas was forced to publicly announce his personal health circumstance.

The day after announcing his HIV status, the former Lions rugby captain helped debunk the myth that people living with HIV are weak and feeble through completing the Ironman triathlon in Tenby, Pembrokeshire.

Since his announcement, Thomas says he hopes to educate and empower others in the same position. He wishes to reassure people they do not need to endure the same fear he experienced, which manifested because of outdated misconceptions and prejudices surrounding HIV.

Despite the change in the treatment of the condition, the severity of the stigma remains the same.

Ian Green, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said medical advances mean people living with HIV can have a normal life expectancy and not pass on the virus when on effective treatment. Despite these insights, in a recent survey, the trust found that 50% of people would not want to date somebody who is living with HIV, even though there is no risk of transmission.

41% of people in Britain are unaware that effective treatments can stop the virus from being transmittable to other partners.

Despite recent documentaries helping to educate public opinion, Green says ‘stigma continues to hold us back in ending HIV transmission’. He believes that hearing people such as Thomas speak out will encourage people to get tested, which is a great step towards reaching the goal of zero new transmissions by 2030.

The relationship between stigma and HIV is cyclical, as discrimination renders people more vulnerable to HIV.

The World Health Organisation has stated the fear of discrimination is the main reason why people are reluctant to get tested, disclose their HIV status and take the correct medication. This reluctance means more people are diagnosed late, when the virus may have already progressed to AIDS, making treatment less effective and increasing the chance of transmission.

'Whenever AIDS has won, stigma, shame, distrust, discrimination and apathy was on its side. Every time AIDS has been defeated, it has been because of trust, openness and dialogue.’ - Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of UNAIDS.

The stigma surrounding the condition leads to the alienation of those with the condition, not just from society, but from the services they need to protect themselves from the virus.

The different forms of discrimination and stigma are often interlinked, as governmental and healthcare stigma, which ostracise individuals through legislation and social prejudices, feed into the internalised stigma of individuals.

Avert, the UK-based charity, states that ‘ultimately, adopting a human rights approach to HIV and AIDS is in the public’s interest..the removal of barriers to health services is key to ending the global HIV epidemic.’

What can you do to help end HIV stigma? 
  1. Empower those living with the condition, encouraging them to understand their rights and act on violations.
  2. Protect people from alienation through voting for anti-discrimination laws.
  3. Advocate inclusion at your workplace or university through promoting charity campaigns and encouraging discussion.
  4. Educate individuals who have misconceptions around the illness to address fears and help instigate a change of attitudes.
To find out more information about HIV, visit Terrence Higgins Trusts website.