HIV Stigma Conference Strives to Save Lives through Education and Compassion
Talib I. Karim | , WI Staff Writer | 12/1/2011, 1:14 a.m.
Pneumonia is listed as the official cause ofd eath, but Dr. Sohail Rana, a Howard University Hospital pediatrician who specializes in HIV/AIDS, says that is not what killed his patient, Chelsea.
"I still remember the date," Rana said. "It was Nov. 4, . It wasn't really the pneumonia that killed her. Many people with HIV have long and productive lives. She couldn't stand the shame and rejection. She couldn't stand the stigma."
Rana said many people around Chelsea "made her feel dirty because of her illness. They kept her dishes separate from the rest of the family, and they sanitized wherever she sat. Chelsea felt ashamed, isolated and rejected. Ultimately, she stopped taking the lifesaving medicine she needed, because it reminded her that she had HIV."
Chelsea's story and many stories like it are the reason Rana said clinicians, HIV/AIDS survivors, activists and others from around the globe are coming to the District of Columbia and inviting Washington-area residents to help them stamp out bias against people with HIV/AIDS during the second International Conference on HIV Stigma on World AIDS Day, Dec.1, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., at the Blackburn Center Ballroom at Howard University. Thursday's event is free and open to the public.
"We want to make people aware of how stigma really colors the life of an individual with HIV, and it makes all prevention efforts fail, because individuals feel uncomfortable revealing their diagnosis to anybody, even doctors," Rana said. "Stigma is real. There are 70 countries that won't let you enter if you have HIV. These people are ridiculed. Imagine how different it is for them versus a patient with cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, people struggling with obesity."
The theme of the conference is "Stigma, the Virus We Can All Cure." Margo Isaacs, 58, a regional coordinator for Indiana, Ohio and Michigan for the National Association for People with Aids, knows about stigma firsthand. She learned she had HIV in 1992 when she was giving birth to her daughter.
"While we were in the delivery room, the obstetrician looked down at me and asked 'How long have you been HIV-positive,'" said Isaac who (according to a Howard University spokesperson) contracted the disease from her daughter's father. "My best friend was in the delivery room and she knew, but I didn't tell anyone."
For the next 10 years, Isaacs kept her status a closely guarded secret. She moved to San Jose, Calif.
"I figured I'd start somewhere fresh where no one knew me," she said.
She worked as a social worker at a medical facility and she heard how the other social workers and the medical staff spoke disparagingly of people with HIV/AIDS.
"Those folks who worked in social service or the medical field did not want to work with clients who were HIV-positive," Isaacs recalled. "I would hear my colleagues talking about not wanting to accept a person because they are positive, and here I am positive."
When her daughter, who was infected with HIV through birth, began to show symptoms of the disease, Isaacs ran again, this time to Phoenix. Not long after her arrival in Arizona, her daughter died at age 2 of complications from AIDS.
Isaac moved back to the Washington area in 1997 and through help from people at the Women's Collective, a health organization for women with HIV/AIDS, she found the strength to talk openly about her disease.
Rana and others hope the conference will allow others to embrace their illness and make the public more compassionate.
"Everybody knows someone like Chelsea [or Margo Isaacs], a person with the disease who is hiding. We want people to make it possible for that friend, that family member to share without made to feel dirty and ashamed."
For the complete conference schedule please visit: www.washingtoninformer.com. wi