Although massive strides have been made in how we treat HIV and how people who are HIV-positive are seen, the disease is still wrapped in stigma and misinformation. In this article, we are going to explore the mixed and complex way in which HIV is viewed today and how it feels for people to be diagnosed with – and live with – HIV.
Scientists are currently working towards a cure for the disease, which we may have one day. In the meantime, one of the most important things we can do to help improve the lives of HIV-positive people is to combat HIV-related stigma and misinformation.
HIV-Related Stigma and Misinformation
Misinformation about HIV is strongly linked to the stigma against the disease. Ignorance tends to breed fear, after all. Firstly, many people associate HIV with behaviors they disapprove of (e.g. homosexuality, drug use, sex work, and infidelity), as well as immorality and irresponsibility. People may also have an exaggerated fear of HIV, believing it leads to death, or have inaccurate information about how it’s passed on, creating irrational behavior and avoidance of relationships with HIV-positive people.
This kind of stigma can impact HIV-positive people in all sorts of ways, leading to a loss of income and livelihood, loss of marriage and relationship, loss of hope and feelings of worthlessness, anxiety and depression, and loss of reputation. HIV-positive people will often feel marginalized and alone living with their condition all because of misinformation and a lack of empathy for their situation.
Here are some essential facts anyone should know about HIV that can help reduce this stigma:
- If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) may stop you from becoming infected.
- HIV is treated with antiretroviral medications, which stop the virus replicating in the body. The amount of HIV virus in your blood (viral load) can be measured following this treatment and if it can no longer be measured it’s considered undetectable. And at this point, experts agree that the virus cannot be transmitted, regardless of whether protection is used or not (although it’s always sensible to use protection for reasons than HIV). Most people can reach an undetectable viral load six months after beginning antiretroviral treatment.
- HIV may shorten a person’s life expectancy considerably, but this is only without effective treatment. For example, in 1996, the life expectancy of a 20-year-old diagnosed with HIV was just 39 years. In 2011, this shot up to 70 years, thanks to the ability of antiretroviral drugs to protect the immune system from HIV.
What Life is Like for HIV-Positive People
A lot of people struggle intensely with the stigma, shame, and hopelessness that can accompany an HIV diagnosis. However, public attitudes towards the disease have shifted dramatically and are continually improving. HIV-positive celebrities have spoken openly about their status, including Queer Eye grooming expert Jonathan Van Ness, Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas, and NBA star Magic Johnson. When high-profile people speak openly about having HIV, it can help others to feel less alone and perhaps encourage speaking about it themselves. Of course, this isn’t to say telling someone you are HIV-positive is ever easy. It isn’t. But open, honest, and informed conversations about the disease are essential to combating the stigma attached to it.
Despite having a stigmatized condition, HIV-positive people can lead normal lives like everyone else, including long lives, successful careers, and healthy relationships. It is entirely possible to have an HIV-positive partner and not have his or her status get in the way of the relationship in any significant way.
It’s time that we stop judging HIV-positive people and view them as complete people, with their HIV-status being only a minor part of their life. As is the case for many people, the stigma of the disease is worse than the disease itself. Fortunately, however, HIV-related stigma is something that all of us have the power to change.