By John Ayad, MPH student, LIU-Brooklyn
For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Stigma is defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person. There are three kinds of stigma. External stigma is critical of something physical, such as leprosy or cleft lip. The second kind of stigma is a known deviation from the mainstream in a personal trait that portrays you in a particular way as a result of mental disorders, incarceration, addiction, etc. Finally, tribal stigma is due to an affiliation with a particular race, nationality or religion. It is very possible that people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) experience all three.
Amongst the most powerful stigmas throughout recent history has been the stigmatization of PLWHA. Since the beginning of the epidemic, HIV has been associated strictly with certain populations. As a matter of fact, when the disease first emerged in the early 1980s, it was named Gay Related Immune Deficiency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the general public, believed that there were only a few populations affected by HIV at the time: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, intravenous drug users and Haitians.
This was nearly 30 years ago, and although many of these original beliefs have been disproven, the stigmas that they have left behind still resonate within Brooklyn today. Brooklyn currently has 27,623 residents living with HIV/AIDS. In 2011, there were a total of 1,570 new diagnoses of HIV/AIDS in Brooklyn. Those are some of the highest rates in the country.
HIV/AIDS is still stigmatized today because of numerous factors. Left untreated, it is a life-threatening disease, causing people to react out of fear. The risk behaviors associated with HIV infection also play a factor. They can lead to homophobia and increased intolerance. In addition, moral and religious beliefs lead some to believe that this is some sort of punishment that is deserved by drug users and sexual minorities. Antiretroviral medications can affect the appearance of those infected.
The effects of stigma on PLWHA should not be taken lightly. It can cause a loss of income and livelihood. It can limit marriage and childbearing options. It can diminish hope and reputations. It can also lead to a feeling of worthlessness. Social stigma is unjust. One of the biggest components contributing to this stigma is the lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS, which still continues. In addition, the chaos and panic that it caused during its discovery left both PLWHA- and HIV-negative people with a sense of fear and isolation.
It’s about time for a change. As a population, we need to realize that by stigmatizing PLWHA we are doing ourselves harm and serving ourselves an injustice. So how do we begin to take steps in the right direction? The key is knowledge. Knowledge can do a world of good. It can help reduce the amount of fear that the HIV/AIDS stigma has left behind. It can help eliminate the prejudice that accompanies HIV/AIDS. More importantly, it can help include PLWHA in our society rather than isolating them with an “HIV positive” label. We need to address the fear caused by HIV/AIDS and the consequent injustice that fear produces in our society, so that we can reduce and eventually eradicate HIV.
MPH Graduate Student
Long Island University-Brooklyn