The continuing stigma of HIV puts people at risk

Despite significant advances being made in treating HIV, stigma is the 'final roadblock' in combating the virus, say UK campaigners and HIV experts.

Lydia Morrish
Lydia Morrish NewsMavens, United Kingdom
The continuing stigma of HIV puts people at risk - NewsMavens
Anti-viral drugs for HIV, NIAID, Flickr Commons

Why this story matters:

Being diagnosed with HIV is no longer akin to a death sentence, but this isn't immediately obvious when assessing the current public conversation surrounding the virus.

Whilst people who are HIV-positive can now live just as long as those who aren't, and have sex without passing on the virus, it is still heavily stigmatized and condemned.

Stigma is even commonplace in health services. In the UK, stories of doctors putting on an extra pair of gloves when treating a patient for reasons unrelated to their status are common.

But this discrimination against people who likely have their virus under control is killing people, says Professor Jane Anderson, a London-based HIV specialist.

She says that the stigma is even “as dangerous as ever”, as ignorance and misinformation about HIV settles in.

Alex Sparrowhawk, the programme officer for HIV Prevention England says he was driven to be more open about his status after learning of all the misconceptions and outdated beliefs there were surrounding HIV.

The fear also spurred him on to go public about having HIV. “There’s a lot of fear surrounding HIV. People think you can get it from kissing,” he says.

Others warn that it is as crucial as ever to tackle HIV stigma, as some have become complacent about the progress that has already been made.

Another member of HIV Prevention England (HPE), its project manager Cham Abebe Kifetew, says that revolutions in treatment mean HIV stigma now has "more impact than the virus itself."

Details from the story:

  • Globally, as many as 36.9 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2017, with east and southern Africa most affected. In the UK, an estimated 101,200 people are living with the virus, while in the United States the figure is 1.1 million.
  • Anti-retroviral medications have revolutionized treatment of HIV, while pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) drugs to prevent transmission are taken by those who might be at risk of contracting it.
  • In 2018, people with an HIV-positive status can live just as long as those without the infection.
  • The most recent survey by the Stigma Index UK, a study project that tracks HIV stigma, found that half of people living with HIV in the UK reported feeling shame, guilt or self-blame in relation to their HIV status. One in five felt suicidal.
  • According to a recent YouGov poll, more than one-third (35%) of people living in the UK would reject somebody on a dating app who was HIV positive. A further third (31%) said they “didn’t know.”
  • Only 45% of the UK population could correctly identify the ways in which HIV is and isn’t transmitted, according to a 2014 report by the National AIDS Trust.
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