Why Does HIV Stigma Still Exist?: #NowWhat

HIV stigma needs to end.

ColumnWhile there still isn’t a cure for the virus, those with HIV can keep it at bay by taking antiretrovirals (ARVs) and expect to have a long and healthy life (and healthy relationships). Although all humans with an Internet connection and a brain can easily research facts about HIV, many people still seem to really freak out when they discover someone around them has the virus. So, why does HIV stigma still exist? The answer is two-part and simple: ignorance and fear.

HIV/AIDS has been in the press spotlight for the past month thanks to Charlie Sheen’s “revealing” interview with NBC and the recent passing of World AIDS Day. Both events are positive instances in the “anti-stigma” movement.

World AIDS Day is always a welcomed event. On December 1, the infection and those living with it get the spotlight to remind everyone that (1)  you cannot get HIV by kissing, touching, etc. (yes, some people still think you can contract the virus this way) and (2) researchers are working their asses off to create even better drugs for people who have HIV. In fact, people who have HIV can lead healthy, happy lives, and have a near-normal life expectancy.

While Charlie Sheen‘s on-air admission of having HIV was a bit dramatic, Sheen’s admission was a big deal. While Sheen discussed some very important facts about HIV and being able to live a healthy life with the diagnosis, he also talked in depth about how he paid people to keep his status private.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he spent money to hide it,” Jonathan Scott, president and CEO of Boston’s Victory Programs, a nonprofit that works daily with those diagnosed with HIV and AIDS, told CNN. “HIV began with horrific stigma, and even 30 years into the disease there is still stigma that is different from other diseases, such as breast cancer.”

HIV stigma is incredibly detrimental to everyone. It hurts the public because it creates unnecessary fear and it harms patients because it can create shame, and deep depression and sadness. This depression and shame can, unfortunately, lead a patient to stop seeking the much-needed medical care patients need to lead a healthy life. CNN reports that “the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States today.”

Of those “only about 37% are actually seeing a clinician regularly,” Dr. Stephen Boswell, president and CEO of Boston’s Fenway Health, a health care organization that works with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, told CNN.

Sadly, the fact that HIV/AIDS still carries this unnecessary stigma isn’t surprising. Comedians, television writers, and everyday people still think it’s hilarious to make jokes about herpes (a totally manageable infection) and people they deem “slutty” (for the last time: your partner number doesn’t count — how you treat your partners does). Hell, I still remember hearing a morning talk show host make a joke about the then recent recommendation to call sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) sexually transmitted infections (STIs), saying that the change was only made to make people feel better about themselves… barf.

We’re all aware that ignorance and fear can lead to hate, so, let’s all make a pact to stop fearing what we don’t know and dedicate time to reading the facts rather than believing the hype.

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Woman holding sign about HIV stigma from miker, Shutterstock

Abbie Stutzer

Writer, editor, and owner of Ginchy!, a freelance writing and editing company, and home funeral hub. Adores smart sex ed, sustainable ag, spooky history, women's health, feminism, horror, wine, and sci-fi.