The focus in the battle against HIV infections recently shifted to include reducing the stigma surrounding HIV. Organizations dedicated to AIDS prevention challenge underlying discrimination and stereotypes against those infected, particularly in low-income countries.

Now organizations such as Egender Health, an NGO working to reduce infections around the world, provide curriculums on reducing the stigma surrounding HIV along with treatment plans to doctors in the field. Avert, a similarly-oriented organization, uses HIV-education to challenge stereotypes.

In Sept. 2016, WHO outlined an extensive plan for eliminating HIV infections that included a goal of “zero HIV-related discriminatory policies and legislation” by 2030.

This new approach emerged at a very critical point in the battle against HIV and AIDS. HIV has now been declared a “primary health concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) and European Disease Control. At around 6.5 million, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest concentration of infected individuals. In 2015, UNAIDS estimated about 36.7 million individuals living with HIV globally, 2.1 million of whom contracted the virus within the past year.

While improving treatment options may eventually offer a final solution to the HIV epidemic, fighting stigma is one of the most promising methods of prevention and reduction. Shame frightens away infected individuals from seeking treatment, undermines prevention efforts by limiting health care services and results in poor quality of care for HIV-positive patients.

Additionally, culture-specific stereotypes relating the disease to infidelity, promiscuity, homosexuality, moral failings and death isolate individuals from support networks.

While stigma remains a large obstacle, a study at Tulane University revealed that mass media, counseling, coping skills acquisition and community-based interventions could greatly reduce HIV stigma. Communities that received some form of HIV-education were far more likely to welcome and accept HIV-positive individuals. Additionally, involving some form of anti-stigma training improved the effectiveness of treatment plans.

Confronting stigma is an important factor in AIDS prevention and treatment. This study, along with others, demonstrates that although the war against HIV may be far from over, the battle against stigma and discrimination is on its way to being won.

Kailey Dubinsky

Photo: Flickr