A Vicious Cycle: Fighting HIV Stigma
Many people still believe false ideas about HIV that stem from misinformation, confusion or ignorance. Such misconceptions about HIV can lead to stigma and often drive discrimination, which can make treatment more difficult to access for people living with HIV.
The battle against HIV stigma has become a major part of the fight to eradicate the disease itself.
What is HIV?
Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) attacks the body’s immune system and is most commonly transmitted by bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluids, and breast milk during one of the following:
- Sexual contact
- Sharing of needles to inject drugs
- Pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding, from a mother to baby
Without treatment, the virus evolves through various stages and can eventually develop into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), a life-threatening syndrome that damages the immune system, thus making anyone with AIDS more susceptible to other illnesses and infections.
Whereas it was once assumed that anyone with HIV would progress to having AIDS, treatment innovations over the decades have allowed many people with HIV to live long and happy lives.
How HIV was stigmatized
HIV was most likely transmitted from chimpanzees to humans in the 1920s and existed at low levels within humans until the eruption of the epidemic in the 1980s. HIV was first noted in the United States among gay men in New York and California, and the public reaction to the condition was largely influenced by fear of the unknown—and homophobia.
Media sensationalism popularized terms such as the “gay plague” and demonized gay and bisexual men as spreaders of the virus, despite the fact that many others outside this demographic were contracting the virus, too. Because it was not initially known how the virus was transmitted, people reacted with great fear to anyone with HIV, often worrying they would contract the disease through a single touch or proximity.
When it was disclosed that sharing drug needles was another way to contract the virus, the status of people with HIV hit an all-time low.
This fear and homophobia led to rampant discrimination, which persists even now.
Current realities of HIV
Today, more than 75 million people have been diagnosed with HIV worldwide, almost half of whom have died from AIDS, but the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART) has significantly decreased the number of deaths.
First introduced in 1987, ART has been dramatically improved over the years, developing from a complex schedule of multiple medications to a much more simplified regimen with fewer side effects.
When used correctly, ART can reduce the amount of HIV in someone’s blood and effectively eliminate their risk of transmitting HIV to a sexual partner. To make a comparison, the predicted life expectancy of someone with AIDS in the 1980s was measured in weeks and months; in 2021, a person who contracts HIV in their 20s can be expected to live well into their 60s, as long as they stick to their treatment.
Fighting HIV stigma
Misinformed perceptions around HIV have infiltrated many systems of our society—legislation, access to health care, even immigration—affecting individuals with HIV on many levels. Stigma on a community level can lead to isolation and self-stigmatization for people with HIV, with some individuals even refusing treatment for fear of ostracization.
So, while treatment and management of HIV have improved significantly, the stigma remains.
Despite the need for far-reaching systemic changes, everyone can work on an individual level to fight HIV stigma. Willingness to learn and talk about the virus is paramount: By educating yourself about the realities of HIV and spreading the word, you can help reduce the spread of misinformation and fear.
Another way to decrease stigma is by making simple changes in your language around HIV, such as eliminating the words “victims” or “sufferers” when referring to people who have HIV.
Finally, you can fight stigma by volunteering time or money to HIV-related efforts, such as service organizations, research programs or groups that advocate for anti-discrimination legislation.
A world without stigma—and HIV
Today, with proper access to health care, individuals with HIV can manage the virus and live long and fulfilling lives. In fact, the United Nations organization UNAIDS maintains the goal of ending the ongoing epidemic by 2030 with its 90-90-90 target objectives:
- 90 percent of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status.
- 90 percent of all people diagnosed with HIV will receive ongoing ART.
- 90 percent of all people undergoing ART will have undetectable levels of HIV in their blood.
The stigma surrounding HIV still stands as a major obstacle to getting the proper treatment into the right hands. By educating yourself about HIV and sharing your knowledge with others, or even getting involved in HIV-related efforts, you can help reduce that stigma, and every step toward ending HIV stigma is a step toward ending HIV itself.