Stigma, and the Fight Against AIDS in Africa

“History will judge us on how we respond to the AIDS emergency in Africa....whether we stood around with watering cans and watched while a whole continent burst into flames....or not.” 

- Bono

A few weeks ago, while preparing for an academic essay, I found myself head-deep in literature on HIV and AIDS. As someone who lives in South Africa, I was aware that this pandemic had firm roots on the African continent. In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for the most people living with HIV, with Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda accounting for almost half of all new infections in the region. But something else stood out for me.

According to current statistics, 35 million people have died from AIDS, and a further 35 million people are living with HIV, more than half of whom don't know that they are infected. The important point I'd like to highlight here is that more than half of people living with HIV don't realise that they are infected. More than half!

Considering the public health implications that this poses to all of us, I wondered why 19 million people didn't know that they were HIV-positive. And then it struck me. 

We're to blame.

Consider this for a moment before reading on. How often do we see people disassociate from HIV-positive people because HIV and AIDS deviates from their immediate social norms? Do we know people who believe that some groups of people (e.g., homosexual men or drug abusers) are deserving of their infection? Or, do we let religious or cultural archetypes or ideologies influence our perception of HIV-positive people?

One of the reasons 19 million people don't know their status is the prejudice and discrimination people living with HIV / AIDS experience. While the disease affects people the same way regardless of different socioeconomic status, there is a tendency for those groups who already fall victim to social exclusion to experience discrimination against HIV and AIDS. These people include gay men, substance abusers, sex workers, prisoners, rape victims, and transgender people, to name some. This prejudice discourages people from willingly being tested, and for those who do know their status, prevents them from receiving the appropriate support, care and treatment. 

Stigma is often triggered by lack of knowledge, cultural myths, and fears. I believe that in discussing HIV and AIDS more openly, we may be able to alleviate the impact of the disease in South Africa. By doing this, we could prevent, reduce and eliminate the prejudice and discrimination associated with HIV and AIDS. And, if we eliminate the prejudice and discrimination, we might be able to get more people tested and reduce that alarming figure of 19 million people.

Today is World AIDS day, and we need to close the HIV testing and treatment gap.

To help do this, right this minute, I would like you to commit to doing four things:

  1. If you haven't already done so, take an HIV test and learn your status.
  2. Find out where the gaps are in your city or neighbourhood.
  3. Get involved with and support a local AIDS organisation.
  4. Donate what ever small change you may have (or more) to an AIDS organisation.

Why am I asking you to do these things? Here's why: more people wouldn't die from being diagnosed too late. A baby wouldn't be born with HIV. A child wouldn't die from AIDS. A family wouldn't lose their mother or breadwinner. 

It's that direct.

And, if you could, after reading this, please email, tweet or post this to your friends. It really does matter. Thanks.