Large numbers of Americans would feel uncomfortable with a doctor, barber or teacher living with HIV, new research into HIV stigma and misinformation has revealed.
GLAAD conducted its survey – which was funded by Gilead Sciences – between 14 and 29 January, with 2,517 adults across the US questioned on their views about HIV.
Just 48 per cent of respondents said they felt knowledgeable about HIV, a decline from the previous year’s study. Many of those who took part in the survey displayed discriminatory ideas about HIV that are based on outdated, harmful ideas about the virus.
Notably, 53 per cent of non-LGBT+ respondents said they would be uncomfortable interacting with a medical professional who is living with HIV. Forty-three per cent said they would be uncomfortable going to a hair stylist or barber who had the virus, while 35 per cent would be uncomfortable with a teacher who is living with HIV.
The survey found that those living in the midwest and southern states were most likely to feel uncomfortable being around people living with HIV.
The stigma around HIV in the south translates directly into poorer outcomes for those living with the virus. The region has the highest rate of HIV diagnosis in the United States, and it also has the highest HIV-related death rate in the country.
People have ‘significant discomfort and unfounded fear’ about HIV
In the foreword to the study, Dafina Ward – executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition – opened up about the painful moment her childhood friend, who had HIV, died aged 40 following a battle with cancer.
“I often wonder how she might have engaged in care differently if she hadn’t felt the need to hide her HIV status,” Ward wrote, adding that her friend didn’t access certain services because she feared being “found out”.
Ward said GLAAD’s new study “paints the picture of the challenges we must overcome to end HIV-related stigma”.
“The findings reflect a vast lack of understanding of HIV and how it can be prevented, a well as significant discomfort and unfounded fear about people living with HIV,” she wrote.
Those unfounded fears are exacerbated by a lack of awareness about the treatments available to those living with HIV – and the medications that can prevent transmission of the virus.
Antiretroviral medication enables those living with HIV to live long, healthy and happy lives. When taken regularly, the treatment also reduces a person’s viral load to an undetectable level, meaning they cannot pass HIV on through sex.
Meanwhile, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) – when taken regularly – is highly effective at preventing a person from contracting HIV through sex.
Huge strides have been made in medical sciences, but many Americans are unaware of those advances. Just 64 per cent of respondents were aware that medications exist to protect people from contracting HIV, while just 42 per cent were aware that people with HIV cannot pass the virus on when on effective treatment.
“For the second year in a row, we are finding that HIV stigma remains high while HIV knowledge remains low amongst Americans,” said DaShawn Usher, GLAAD Associate Director for Communities of Colour.
“We have to think critically and intentionally about how we truly equip and engage everyday Americans with the facts, resources, and scientific advancements about HIV if we want to end the epidemic.
“We must hold the media accountable to the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV who are not seen, represented or discussed. Their stories matter and are beyond worthy of being told.”
Jonathan Van Ness says ‘culture of stigma and ignorance’ still exists around HIV
Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness – who went public with their HIV diagnosis in 2019 – said: “We continue to do our work of educating folks on living with, the treatment of, and prevention of HIV/AIDS, but a culture of stigma and ignorance still exists for so many people.”
They continued: “A lack of compassion and stigma will continue to allow HIV/AIDS to hurt people in all communities until everyone in every community prioritises ending the judgment and cruelty that is preventing healing for everyone affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.”
The charity has released its report just weeks after rapper DaBaby made international headlines when he made harmful, inaccurate comments about HIV on stage at a music festival.
Speaking at the Rolling Loud festival in July, DaBaby said: “If you didn’t show up today with HIV, AIDS, any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that’ll make you die in two, three weeks, then put your cellphone light up.”
The rapper was roundly criticised by HIV and LGBT+ advocacy organisations for his remarks, which ignored the huge strides that have been made in medical science since the virus first emerged in the early 1980s.
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