December 1 marks World AIDS Day. Today, teleSUR highlights the struggle for the recognition of HIV/AIDS as a matter of public health and the challenges that remain in the battle against persisting stigma.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) reached the United States in the 1960s but it wasn't until the 1980s that a movement emerged to raise awareness, counter stigma, reduce transmission, and demand public policy. Widely regarded as a "gay-disease" for decades policymakers did little to address the growing number of deaths linked to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).
AIDS came with discrimination and heavy stigma.
People living with HIV were turned away from care services, were stripped of their jobs and even abandoned by their families. As the crisis grew worldwide in the 1980s there were no solutions in sight nor did there seem to be mainstream interest in finding them.
Lack of interest did not only derive from it being an unknown condition but from the belief that it was exclusively infecting people in gay communities, mainly men, who were already the targets of discrimination and hate.
The public image of AIDS, which was derogatorily referred to as “gay cancer,” only made people more vulnerable to becoming infected with it, as it promoted fear and ignorance. People would not pursue treatment because they were frightened of the social consequence and others refused to learn more about the disease.
“Whenever AIDS has won, stigma, shame, distrust, discrimination, and apathy was on its side,” said Executive Director of UNAIDS Michel Sidibe.
“Every time AIDS has been defeated, it has been because of trust, openness, dialogue between individuals and communities, family support, human solidarity, and the human perseverance to find new paths and solutions.”
In Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, civil society groups formed non-government organizations and began demanding that the government develop education and prevention programmes in the 1980s.
After implementing prevention programmes and a “treat all” policy in 2013, the prevalence of AIDS among adults in Brazil has dropped to less than one percent.
“It’s the first time in over 20 years that we have seen such a dramatic decline in national AIDS-related deaths,” said Dr. Adele Benzaken, Director of the Brazilian Ministry of Health’s Department of Surveillance, Prevention and Control of Sexually Transmitted Infections, HIV/AIDS and Viral Hepatitis.
The battle to eradicate AIDS is far from over. Since the epidemic began in the 1980s, nearly 22 million people have died of AIDS-related causes, UNAIDS reported. Today, 36.1 million people live with the virus. As of 2017, half of those living with AIDS worldwide are receiving treatment.
Despite recent victories, UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) have warned that stigma and discrimination remain the main reasons why people are reluctant to get tested, disclose their HIV status and take antiretroviral drugs. According to one study, people who reported high levels of stigma were over four times more likely to report poor access to healthcare, contributing to the expansion of HIV and a higher number of AIDS-related deaths.