HIV: When They Need it Most, Just Embrace, Do Not Reject
By K. Amponsah-Manager
In an earlier article, I told you a story with the title “I Was Shocked When I Was Told I Have HIV”. Please remember to read that if you missed it.
HIV and Stigma:
We have lived with HIV for nearly 30 years, ever since the illness first came to light in the early 1980s, but the cultural attitudes that drive most of the stereotypes do not seem to be going any where. Globally, it estimated that 7,400 people are infected every day with HIV, a significant proportion of this in Africa.
Stigmatization of HIV rooted in cultural and religious attitudes is perhaps sending as many people to their graves as the condition itself.
Stigmatization may be defined as severe social disapproval of personal characteristics or beliefs that are perceived to be against cultural norms. With regard to HIV stigma is portrayed in prejudice, negative attitudes, abuse and maltreatment directed at people living with HIV and AIDS. In some cases, people with HIV are ostracized by direct family members and the wider community. Even healthcare and education facilities may discriminate in offering service to such people.
Causes of HIV Stigma:
The causes for these established stigmas are widespread ranging from religious and cultural beliefs and expectations and mere misinformation. Personally, the first time I heard about HIV was around 1986 and it was in a church. The Ministry of Health had sent out a team of nurses and Para-medics to tour rural communities in Ghana to educate them on the newcomer HIV. In fact Churches and Mosques were the easiest and cheapest places to get the message across. I was young then, but looking back I am embarrassed by how much misinformation we were fed. And I do not blame the messengers for what they told us. In fact, the world knew very little at that time. Since then much has been learnt about what is and what is not about HIV and AIDS. Some societies have moved quickly in using the available information to undo some of the damage done by the earlier misinformation; other societies are yet to begin the process. This is true of several African communities.
It is sad to say that some communities in Africa still hold the belief that shaking hands, drinking from a cup or eating from a bowl that has been used by a person with HIV, and in extreme cases using a chair previously used by an HIV carrier, will all result in contracting the virus. Again, HIV is normally associated with behaviors that are shunned by society. These include prostitution, drugs, homosexuality, and infidelity. In fact, in some communities, HIV, prostitution and promiscuity are synonyms. HIV was first identified in young gay men in New York and this is always used to tie the illness to the practice of homosexuality. When viewed from the religious perspective, the stigma is even justified since HIV is seen as a punishment for deviant behaviors.
Unfortunately, stigmatization hurts all of us: the patient, the family, and the community as a whole. Early detection is vital to managing the HIV condition but fear of stigmatization makes it difficult for people to go for check up and testing services even when there is reason to believe that something may not be right. The fear of stigmatization holds 1000s of people from accessing care even when it is available to them for free. A sizable proportion of our natural resources is spent in HIV treatment and campaign. We expect to move forward but stigmas and myths continue to be impediment.
The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon once said
“Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action. It is a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so. It helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world.” I couldn’t agree with him any more.
HIV stigma is not a problem with developing nation alone. Even in a developed world such as the US, stigma associated with HIV prevails. HIV is a new disease compared to malaria, TB, and syphilis but at it is least 25 years old. It is about time that we work our way out of the stigmas associated with the condition and help ourselves, our families and society.
The person living with the HIV virus is a sister, brother, father, mother, teacher and an entertainer. He or she is not just the ‘HIV Patient’. What a different it would make if it was that easy to accept that.
Thanks for reading.