Although research has revealed a lot about HIV over the past 25 years'especially the reality of how the virus is and is not spread'there's still considerable unfounded fear of HIVers. And according to a sobering report by amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, women who have the virus frequently experience some of the worst discrimination.
A nationwide survey of about 5,000 people has revealed that well over half would not be comfortable with an HIV-positive woman as their doctor, dentist, or child-care provider. Only 14% said HIV-positive women should have children, even when they were informed that antiretroviral drugs can keep newborns free of infection. And perhaps the most dispiriting finding: 20% wouldn't even welcome an HIV-positive woman as a friend.
While disheartening, these prejudices are well-known to far too many HIVers who've experienced them firsthand.
'I'm definitely not surprised,' laments Margot Isaac, care management program director at the Women's Collective, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that focuses on HIV-positive women and their families. 'Folks who know I'm HIV-positive cringe and run for the hills if I sneeze. We have a young lady as a client here who, when she disclosed her status to her roommate, was evicted. The amount of fear and stigma still out there is incredible.'
Both Isaac and the amfAR officials who coordinated the survey say the likeliest reason for the extreme prejudice is an ongoing misconception that HIV infection is the result of immoral or illegal behavior.
'There's still a belief that the only people who get HIV are injection-drug users or [people who] are very promiscuous,' Isaac says, 'and as such you got what you deserved.'
Breaking that dangerous misperception is the first step in ending the fear and stigma that still surrounds the virus, says Susan J. Blumenthal, amfAR's senior policy and medical adviser, who is a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary for women's health. The survey should serve as a wake-up call for action across all sectors of society, she insists, adding, 'We need to intensify efforts for science-based education and policy to shatter the stigma that has surrounded this disease for all too long.'