How You Can Fight The Sickening Stigma Surrounding HIV/AIDS

by Lani Seelinger
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Close to four decades after the start of the AIDS epidemic, the scientific and medical communities have made strides in treating this disease. In order to combat the disease going forward, however, there's one more aspect that needs to be tamed: the stigma surrounding it. You need to know how to help fight the HIV/AIDS stigma, because even now that science is able to get the virus under control, it's the stigma that can still lead to sickness and even death.

Firstly, some background: HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, probably originated only in the early part of the 20th century. When the current HIV epidemic began at the beginning of the 1980s, a diagnosis was essentially a death sentence. Thousands of people all over the world wasted away, with the virus concentrated in populations of gay men, sex workers, transgender individuals, and intravenous drug users.

Its association with these marginalized groups was how the stigma developed — people saw it as a "gay" disease, at a time when the LGBTQ community was still very much discriminated against. Now, millions of people with HIV receive treatments that allow them to lead long lives and new infections are down significantly — but the stigma against HIV and AIDS still persists. And as long as it persists, it impedes progress in the fight to achieve an AIDS-free generation.

Now that the virus itself is no longer a mystery, the stigma surrounding HIV is in many ways as dangerous as the disease. Those who feel discriminated against or marginalized will be less likely be educated on HIV, more likely to contract the disease, less likely to seek treatment, and therefore more likely to get sicker. Where the stigma is at its strongest, those who do seek treatment can run up against healthcare professionals who disparage them for even having the disease or even deny them treatment.

There are ways to fight the HIV stigma, however. Foremost among those is to educate those with the disease and those who are vulnerable to contracting it, which can mean anything from running training courses for healthcare providers, engaging with the communities in question, providing counseling for those affected by HIV in any way, or running HIV education campaigns in the media. On an institutional level, employers should institute non-discrimination policies for those living with HIV. On a policy level, laws in the U.S. and around the world should be changed so that they no longer discriminate against AIDS patients and those living with HIV.

If you'd like to combat the HIV stigma on an individual level, it might seem like an impossible task. However, there are still things that you can do, and since a stigma is a problem that spreads from person to person, any mind changed counts.

If you're living with HIV or if you're somehow otherwise affected by it, the best thing that you can do is speak out about it. Don't be silenced. The more people who see that it's not a life-ending diagnosis anymore, the better. If you've never come in contact with someone who has HIV, then engage with the HIV-positive community, and then spread what you learn. Use your voice to amplify their stories, and help to share educative materials on social media and elsewhere. At the very least, you can always speak up when you hear a disparaging remark about HIV or AIDS. In this regard, every little voice of support helps.

You can also lend your voice to the advocacy effort, or donate to organizations like UNAIDS that are actively working in the field. Laws in many states still discriminate against those who have HIV, even though decades and numerous medical advancements have gone by since they were instituted. You can't get rid of those on your own, but their eventual removal will be a huge step forward for the HIV-positive community.

On the most personal level, of course, one thing that you can do is get yourself tested for HIV, and recognize that those who openly declare their HIV-positive status present less of a danger to you than those who haven't gotten themselves tested. Someone who knows their status will be on medication to keep their viral load down, and they'll also be likely to be very careful to keep their partners safe.

Once you've gotten rid of the stigma in your own mind, you'll be much more likely to help spread the word in your broader community.