HIV, AIDS, and Fear Itself

AIDS stigma destroys careers and friendships

Content Tools

See photos from INFECTED and AFFECTED at  

Stigma is  one of the defining characteristics of HIV/AIDS, differentiating it from its biologically-parallel-but-socially-altogether-different retroviral kin. While we can discuss vaccinating children against HPV as we choke down our Cheerios, and we can sit comfortably in front of commercials for herpes drugs, the mere whisper of the word AIDS often causes all polite conversation to cease.

No one is imagining this. In 2007, the Foundation for AIDS Research sponsored a survey of Americans’ attitudes about women living with HIV/AIDS. The survey found that more than half are uncomfortable having an HIV-positive woman as their dentist, doctor, or child care provider. Eighty-seven percent are uncomfortable dating someone who is HIV-positive. One in four was uncomfortable having an HIV-positive woman as a close friend.

It would be one thing if stigma stopped with an attitude, but in a recent survey on POZ’s website, 34 percent of respondents said that fear of stigma has prevented them from seeking care, treatment, and support. Imagine how many people don’t get tested because of stigma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HIV-positive people who are unaware of their infection might account for 54 to 70 percent of all new sexually transmitted HIV infections in the United States. Stigma is a barrier to individual—and public—health.

While much of the impact of HIV-related stigma is quantifiable, however, it is, arguably, those aspects not captured by statistics that prove the most devastating. More than 1,000 people told POZ chilling stories of how stigma negatively affects their lives. Only a small group spoke of how they fight it, standing proud and strong despite society’s desire to keep them down. The following are excerpts from the responses. 

When I told

Regan Hofmann is editor in chief of POZ, the magazine of health, life, and HIV, which celebrated its 15-year anniversary last May. This article is from its December 2009 issue.

For more, see a slideshow of  more INFECTED and AFFECTED photographs .