Despite tremendous progress in addressing the HIV/AIDS scourge and efforts by national governments and international agencies, globally the number of newly infected people continues to exceed the number entering into treatment programs. Stigma and discrimination directed towards HIV-infected persons are partly responsible for this discrepancy and thus play significant roles in the development and maintenance of the HIV epidemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) definesstigma as the prejudice, avoidance, rejection and discrimination directed at people believed to have an illness, disorder or other trait perceived to be undesirable.
The modes of transmission of HIV are already well-documented. In developing countries like Nigeria, populations at high risk of contracting the virus include commercial sex workers, homosexual men, intravenous drug users and recipients of multiple blood transfusions.
A huge component of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in Nigeria lies with the general but rather erroneous belief that only the “promiscuous” get infected. Once diagnosed, the moral integrity of a HIV-positive person is immediately questioned and it is automatically assumed that such an individual is superlatively wayward and deliberately chose to take part in risky behaviors.
As if being HIV positive weren’t bad enough, the associated social stigma can make sufferers hide their illness. Stigma and discrimination have been shown to impede HIV prevention and testing and to complicate treatment efforts.
Additionally those who are stigmatized often experience discrimination in some other fashion. The combined effects of stigmatization and discrimination from HIV can have adverse multiplier effects for groups who may already be discriminated against based on sexuality, gender or other factors. Women for instance may be held to a different moral standard than men and are more likely than men to be seen as having contracted HIV as a consequence of promiscuity.
Stigmatization also includes actions arising from the false belief that HIV can be acquired from being in close contact with infected people by holding hands, hugging, sharing home conveniences, mattresses and most other household items.
Many are not oblivious of these fallacies and yet would hesitate to come close to an individual confirmed to be HIV positive. This attitude leads to physical isolation of HIV patients in their homes, places of worship, workplaces and sadly, even in some hospitals. Some medical practitioners are guilty of this. There have been cases whereby medical doctors shirk conducting physical examination on HIV patients just to avoid touching them, delegating such responsibilities to more junior colleagues.
Strange as this may sound, but it really happens! The attitude in itself amounts to gross professional malfeasance and should be condemned in very strong terms.
Continued efforts at tackling the AIDS scourge must include innovative approaches by stakeholders to reduce stigma and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS. Understandably, medical practitioners play a key role in this battle as they come in contact with many HIV-positive patients in their practice.
Family members and care-takers of affected persons should also be constantly reassured that while taking some precautionary measures, most acts of love and gestures that promote sense of belonging in these patients do not pose a risk.
Patient care should be holistic. It isn’t just about prescribing and administering the appropriate drugs, neither does it end with series of health talks and loads of professional advice. The emotional well-being of these persons must also be addressed.
As we mark the world AIDS day tomorrow on December 1, let us all join hands towards efforts to drastically reduce the incidence and prevalence of HIV/AIDS through effective protocols, and always lead by example in improving the life quality of those infected by reducing the psychological trauma faced by the patients.