Hesperian Health Guides
Why stigma against people with HIV is so dangerous
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In the years before ART treatment transformed HIV from a deadly disease to a life-long illness that can be controlled, there was a lot of fear of the disease and of the people infected with it. As more became known, many of the uncertainties about HIV illness disappeared. Unfortunately, the rumors and prejudices that had grown up around it have not disappeared so quickly. Even though it is not true, some people still think HIV spreads easily or always brings death. Their fear of illness and death causes them to isolate people who need more connection, not less, and to make life harder for people already facing many challenges. A lot of false information spreads because HIV is transmitted mostly through sex, and many people are afraid or think it is wrong to talk openly about sex and sexuality.
HIV spreads the most and does the most harm where people are too afraid to talk about what causes HIV, or to seek testing and treatment because they fear gossip, or because they worry that they and their families will be treated badly if others know they have HIV.
Children are particularly harmed by stigma. When parents delay testing or beginning treatment for fear of family or community responses to HIV, a child can sicken quickly or develop physical or mental disabilities. Children with HIV who are denied opportunities to participate in community life or schooling can develop lasting emotional problems.
That’s why teaching and talking about the causes of HIV, how anyone can get it, and how to treat it are so important. When we accept that people with HIV are our relatives and neighbors, when we hear them talk about their lives and challenges, when we see them participate in community life with their talents and skills, then we see the stigma against HIV diminish.
The simple truth is:
Stigma from fear of HIV does not keep people safe from HIV, it makes HIV worse.