AIDS can be a scary four-letter word. The word alone may invoke fear of sickness, death, and worst of all – exclusion. Ironically, these very stigmas actually feed the epidemic that is so widely spurned.
AIDS, as a disease, was first recognized in the early 1980’s by the Center for Disease Control. It is believed to have originated from hunters getting infected with chimpanzee blood in West Africa decades ago.
AIDS weakens the immune system over time making the body vulnerable to other diseases that it would normally not get. It is caused by the virus known as HIV. People can be infected with HIV – but not display any symptoms of AIDS for several years.
In part, campaigns for AIDS awareness have been very effective in educating the public on the realities of AIDS. However, false stigmas still persist. Here is a look at some of them.
A major social stigma surrounding the disease is that casual contact can spread HIV/AIDS infection. However, HIV/AIDS cannot be spread from everyday contact like shaking hands or sharing a toilet seat. The virus is mainly spread through sexual contact, sharing needles, and via untested blood transfusions (before 1992).
Even though people know how HIV is contracted, the knowledge alone fails to calm the “cooties-like” fear some people have about casual contact with HIV infected persons, according to a phone survey conducted in 2009.
A second dated misconception about HIV/AIDS is that a positive diagnosis is a death sentence. When AIDS first became widely known in the 1980’s, there was no treatment at the time. Hence, the disease went on to claim over 25 million lives globally. However, since the 1990’s, medical progress has enabled many HIV carriers to keep their infection in check. Nearly 33.4 million people are currently living with the disease worldwide.
Another stigma labels the HIV/AIDS afflicted as being sexually amoral people. It is true that certain groups in our demographic are at a much higher risk for getting AIDS. However, should the perceived morality of these high risk groups cause the general public to behave in a way that makes the epidemic worse? The answer is subject to debate.
Lastly, AIDS is no longer perceived as a global emergency. In a 1995 survey, 44% said AIDS was America’s top health problem. Today, far fewer believe AIDS remains a high priority. Only 6% agreed in a 2009 survey. This stigma has affected funding to AIDS programs. According to Columbia University professor and a special advisor to the UN, Jeffrey Sachs, relatively little funding is needed to fight the spread of AIDS.
“Five billion dollars from the world: That’s three paychecks to the top three hedge fund owners.”
“This is chump change, and yet this is our hard part. We do not have a financial crisis. We do not have an economic crisis. We have a moral crisis.”
While there are several stigmas associated with AIDS, the social ones are particularly disturbing. They make people afraid of getting tested and diagnosed for fear of being socially outcast. When people avoid testing, they avoid treatment that can help them live longer, healthier lives and prevent further spreading of HIV. Perhaps it is in our collective best interest to re-evaluate what we know about AIDS and the lingering stigmas attached to it.
By Fatema Bivji