This year has shown that HIV stigma still prevails | Dr Shaun Griffin

Shaun Griffin

As a society, we must do more to tackle and overcome the stigma around HIV. Cuts to public health and social care will make this more challenging, writes Dr Shaun Griffin, but recent media coverage on the HIV status of a Hollywood star, and shameful comments during this year's general election campaign, show we can’t afford not to. 

World AIDS Day on 1 December gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect on the impact HIV and AIDS have had in the UK, and on those we have lost. It is also a realisation of how much further we need to go to address HIV stigma. 

The impact of stigma, combined with the changing demographics of HIV and a compromised system for health and social care, are already having a direct impact on people living with and affected by HIV.

For more than 30 years HIV has been a recognised health issue. Advances in treatment since the 1980s have been staggering. But those advances have, sadly, not been accompanied by progress in attitudes towards people living with HIV. The impact of stigma on health is tangible – it deters people from taking up testing and treatment opportunities, and can impact on the mental health of those living with the virus.

This year has served to demonstrate that stigma still prevails. Some of the most vile comments of the year came from Nigel Farage during the general election campaign, who said that immigrants with HIV should not be able to use the UK healthcare system – he invented statistics in an attempt to justify a point that could never be justified.
Only in the last month the media reporting around Charlie Sheen’s HIV-positive status led to some despicable headlines. Before he went public, some media outlets were using headlines like ‘Hollywood gripped with fear’. We were angered and saddened by what at best could be described as irresponsible journalism and at worst an insidious headline grab.

A Terrence Higgins Trust poll, the results of which were launched today, asked 600 people living with HIV for words they have heard to describe their health condition – ‘AIDS’, ‘riddled’, ‘unclean’ and ‘diseased’ were some of the most cited. Ninety per cent said they believed the public was unable to distinguish between HIV (a virus) and AIDS (a collection of illnesses caused when the virus is untreated and their immune system is compromised) and it was the conflation of those terms that was the most upsetting.

The results of the important and influential UK People Living with HIV Stigma Index 2015 survey are due to be published today, World AIDS Day. In November, I heard some early findings about the impact of stigma on access to the healthcare system – for example that stigma had prevented 15 per cent of people surveyed from accessing their GP in the last year, and 66 per cent had avoided dental care. One in seven had also received negative comments from healthcare workers. 

As a society, we must do more to tackle and overcome the stigma around HIV. The current cuts to public health and social care make this more of a challenge – we already know that essential support services for people living with HIV are being scrapped in Oxfordshire, Leeds, East Sussex and Portsmouth. The list is likely to grow as service providers clarify commissioning intentions with local authorities. 

Help us to campaign against the impact of the public health spending cuts, and on this World AIDS Day, join us to #Stopstigma.

Dr Shaun Griffin is director of external affairs at the Terrence Higgins Trust. Follow the organisation on Twitter @THTorguk

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