By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Stigma is defined as, “The shame or disgrace attached to something regarded as socially unacceptable.” Those who feel stigmatized feel outcast and are marked out as being different.
HIV infection may lead to fears, prejudices or negative attitudes leading to stigma. HIV positive people are insulted, rejected, gossiped about and excluded from social activities.
This leads to a greater fear of coming out in the open with the condition and seeking treatment. This could also lead to suffering in silence and damage the mental health of the patients leading to depression and other psychiatric conditions.
HIV related stigma also means that there is a lot of misconception about the disease. The myths mainly exist regarding modes of transmission of the virus. Many believe that the condition is a death sentence or that most people with HIV are immoral or irresponsible.
Forms of Stigma
Stigma may take many forms. Some include:
- Verbal – Taunts, gossip, blame and rumors
- Institutional stigma includes job loss due to HIV status, eviction from housing, loss of educational opportunities and denial of healthcare and other facilities
- Targeting and victimizing vulnerable groups such as women and girls, sex workers, men who have sex with men, and injecting drug users. Targets may be subjected to violence and the refusal of health and other services
Myths giving rise to stigma of AIDS
Some common myths that give rise to fear, discrimination and stigma include:
- “People with HIV are a public health risk”. This myth needs to be busted since HIV cannot be acquired by day-to-day contact.
- “HIV is a death sentence” – Untreated HIV is indeed a death sentence but treated AIDS may be delayed and a longer life is possible. Most people who receive HIV treatment at the right time, take it as prescribed, and look after their health will live a long and healthy life.
- “Only bad, gay, and sexually promiscuous people get HIV” – This is untrue since HIV can be acquired from infected mother to baby and from contaminated blood transfusion as well.
Reasons for stigma
Ever since the first cases of AIDS in the early 1980s, people with HIV have been stigmatised. The reasons for this include:
- Leprosy and tuberculosis are also diseases that are contagious and may lead to severe consequences and are thus associated with stigma.
- There is a fear of catching the infection that leads to stigma
- Due to sexual mode of transmission many believe HIV is caused due to promiscuous behaviour as a punishment.
- Some religions have strong codes against sexual explorations and for these groups the stigma attached to AIDS patients and HIV positive individuals is high.
- Negative feelings towards prostitutes, gay men, immigrants, black people, drug users is aggravated by these groups being at high risk of HIV.
There is an equality law against discrimination or being treated unfair due to HIV positive status. All people with diagnosed HIV are protected by the law, in the same way as people who are discriminated against because of their race, disability, sex, age, sexual orientation or religion.
Reviewed by April Cashin-Garbutt, BA Hons (Cantab)