Thanks to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, and there is a global effort to end the disease by 2030. But the stigma surrounding people living with HIV and their difficulties getting access to health care have made the disease a human rights issue as well as a health challenge.
According to Noor Raad at Médecins Sans Frontières, myths about people living with HIV persist and contribute to their marginalization as a community. For example, she said, people still have the false perception that HIV/AIDS is a disease only for gay men, or that you can get HIV simply by touching someone who is infected or drinking from the same cup. At the same time, people do not realize the disease can be spread by sharing needles.
The misconceptions make patients vulnerable to depression and other mental illness, Raad said: “What ends up happening is patients feel very isolated and they lack peer support.”
Despite the fact that many countries have laws protecting people living with HIV, the laws are not always enforced. Some people cannot afford to visit health clinics or get medication.
Others, such as sex workers, gay men and drug users, whose activities are often criminalized, may fail to seek help, fearing legal punishment as well as the judgment of their community. The result is that those who most need information, education and counseling will not receive it, even where such services are available.
Here are some ways Raad suggested to help people with HIV feel less stigmatized:
- Educate yourself on the myths and facts surrounding HIV transmission.
- Speak out when you hear jokes or derogatory comments made about people with HIV.
- Join a local nongovernmental organization or support group that advocates for people living with HIV by combating stigma or helps them get medications.
- Organize a workshop or training session to spread the word on how to prevent infection and to better educate your peers so those living with HIV will not be targeted or judged.
- If you know someone with HIV, help end the person’s isolation by creating a safe space to talk about the condition. “The most important thing is to gain the person’s trust and make them feel that they are not being judged,” she said.