“You can only get HIV if you are gay.” “You can get HIV by breathing the same air as someone who has it.” “You can tell when someone has HIV by looking at them.”
Many of us have heard the harmful myths surrounding HIV and AIDS. Unfortunately, though more and more is being discovered about the disease every day to disprove any misunderstandings, misconceptions about HIV are still very prevalent and can be detrimental to people affected by the disease.
How did HIV originate and spread?
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that harms your immune system by attacking white blood cells within your body, which puts you at increased risk for certain illnesses. AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, is a late stage of HIV. While HIV is a disease, AIDS is a condition.
HIV is widely believed to have originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1920 when it crossed species from chimpanzees to humans. However, it became an epidemic in the mid-1970s, spreading to North and South America, Africa, Europe, and Australia by 1980. HIV was first noticed by several conditions of AIDS in gay men and needle-drug users in the early 1980s. From there, rumors spread about gay men and their correlation to the AIDS epidemic, increasing societal fear of and discrimination against homosexual men.
What were the societal repercussions?
Stigma generated around HIV and AIDS extraordinarily fast. AIDS was seen as taboo, a secret, not to be told to anyone. This exaggerated fears about the realities of HIV. In 1985, a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 50% of respondents would support quarantining people who had been diagnosed with AIDS.
The stigma surrounding HIV discouraged testing for it, as well as asking for your partner’s HIV status or disclosing your own. This policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” made matters worse by unknowingly spreading the disease to people and hindering those who had it from becoming aware they did until they were already experiencing the symptoms. The stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS also became a remarkable barrier for people living with the disease to seek treatment due to the fear of becoming a social outcast or a victim of physical violence.
How were myths surrounding HIV and AIDS combatted?
In 1987, Princess Diana made headlines for doing what was then the unthinkable: shaking hands with an AIDS patient without wearing gloves. This, along with her famous quote, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug: Heaven knows they need it,” challenged the common idea at the time that HIV could be transmitted by casual contact.
The International AIDS Society, as well as many other organizations like it, are also dedicated to combating the stigma surrounding AIDS by hosting AIDS conferences with health professionals, community leaders, and the public to discuss HIV and change the narrative around it.
How does this still apply today?
Despite remarkable attempts by many people and groups combating misconceptions surrounding HIV and AIDS, stigma around the disease and the people who are affected by it still exists. A report released by the Population Reference Bureau details that the stigma is strengthened by societal inequality surrounding race and sexuality. The report explains that when certain groups are already seen as deviant in society, society’s thoughts about that group are only reinforced when they can also apply social stigma surrounding contracting HIV and AIDS to members of that group.
A 2013 report released by the National Institutes of Health examined the linkage between race and HIV. The study found that African Americans and people in the LGBTQ+ community, who already face disparities when it comes to access to healthcare, experience worse stigma surrounding HIV and are less likely to receive the care they need due to the intersection of discrimination they face surrounding their sexuality, race, and drug use. This makes HIV more dangerous because people aren’t receiving enough access to prevention and treatment services, meaning they could be unknowingly spreading the disease to others.
World AIDS Day is December 1st every year, dedicated to raising awareness of the issue of AIDS and fighting against the stigma enshrouding it. Over 30 million people across the world have died from HIV-related illnesses. The most important step in solving this health epidemic is breaking down the barriers in access to healthcare, which can only be done by eliminating the stigma surrounding HIV. Becoming informed and educated about the disease is a crucial element of fighting back against societal stigma and shaping a healthier world.