Stigma Still Attached to HIV
University of California at Davis psychology professor Gregory Herek, PhD, has conducted nationwide surveys of AIDS attitudes and knowledge for more than 10 years. "Notions that HIV can be spread by casual contact are closely linked to stigma," he tells WebMD. "To the extent people can be put into categories, people whose misinformation is based on distrust of what the government says tend not to be angry or disgusted with AIDS patients, but just worried that they themselves might get infected. For another group there is a condemnation of gay men and intravenous drug users that leads to punitive attitudes -- those are the ones who say it is their own fault. It's not a clear and simple thing."
"It is a human response to react negatively to what we can't understand and can't relate to," Valdiserri says. "We need to deal with that -- not only because it is the right thing to do, but because this has a significant impact on public health. If people are afraid to even admit they are at risk, then how can prevention work? Society has a real stake in addressing these issues."
The CDC already is planning to act. "We are conducting research to understand these attitudes, and we continue to work with faith communities -- which we feel are very important as stigma often has a moral or judgmental aspect," Valdiserri says. "The CDC also is working with White House Office of AIDS Policy to begin an advertising campaign to reduce stigma. It is scheduled to begin next spring. Also beginning next spring we will start up a training program of local HIV service providers. We have to teach the kinds of practical steps health providers can take to reduce stigma around HIV and AIDS."
CDC figures show that a third of the 4-5 million Americans with HIV infection do not know that they carry the AIDS virus. All of the experts contacted for this article stressed that AIDS stigma makes it hard for people to admit they are at risk of infection -- and keeps them from seeking the HIV testing, counseling, and treatment that can save their lives and keep them from spreading the disease.