Conference Tackles Stigma Surrounding HIV/AIDS

Freddie Allen, Special to The Informer from NNPA | 12/4/2013, 3 p.m.
The International Conference on Stigma at Howard University featured lectures and panel discussions on the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and ...
Beverly Becton (Courtesy photo)

“These events are important because they help people understand that [HIV/AIDS] is a health issue and to get accurate information,” said Ebony Johnson, policy and advocacy manager for the Women’s Collective, a non-profit group that advocates for the needs of women living with HIV/AIDS and those at risk for becoming infected.

Johnson added that conferences such as the International Conference on Stigma can help people living with HIV come out of isolation and help them realize that they are not alone that they can be successful and access services and find support networks.

Johnson said that a lot of the fear about the HIV/AIDS comes from the notion that it began as a gay White man’s disease.

“Then, it was a sex worker and drug user disease, then it was a disease of promiscuous people,” said Johnson. “Researchers, doctors and health care providers are still trying to outlive those negative monikers and bring this into a health conversation. But it’s hard because of the transmission route, it’s hard because it does involve sex, it involves pleasure, and it involves how people see themselves and how people realize their mortality.”

Johnson said that health care providers, community stakeholders have to be vigilant about re-messaging and repackaging what HIV is and what the possibilities for a better quality of life with treatment and also what health outcomes can be achieved.

Johnson continued: “People want to know that they can be healthy, that they can date, that they can have babies and that technology exists. I still think that we are late to the party when it comes to helping people understand that.”

Groups such as Metro TeenAIDS try to help young people get there a little bit earlier.

“First, you have to realize that stigma exists,” said Tafari Ali, education outreach coordinator for Metro TeenAIDS, a community health organization dedicated to partnering with young people to end HIV/AIDS. “A lot of young people don’t want to admit it.”

That tunnel-vision can have dire consequences among young people in the Black community.

Young, Black males 13-24 years-old accounted for 38 percent of new HIV infections, compared to 16 percent White males in the same age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black men were 31 percent of all new HIV infections and accounted for 70 percent of new HIV infections among blacks.

While Blacks represent around 14 percent of the total U.S. population, they accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections in 2010, a rate that was eight times higher than infection rate for Whites, according to the CDC. Whites represented 31 percent of the new HIV infections in 2010.

Ali said that Metro TeenAIDS combats the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases and infections by empowering young people with information and training them as peer counselors to go out and educate their family, friends and classmates.

“We understand that health barriers minority communities face as well as the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS that prevents many minority populations from seeking medical care and adhering to treatment,” said Commander Jacqueline Rodrigue, deputy director of the Office of Minority Health at the Department of Health and Human Services. “Even though we have made significance progress to fight against this national and global epidemic, HIV/AIDS continues to impact communities across our country and around the world especially our communities of color and other communities that live their lives on the margins of society.”

Speaking during the opening plenary session of the International Conference on Stigma, Rodrigue said that AIDS continues to be shocking and misunderstood and its heaviest burden continues to fall upon those who are least likely to have a voice and a place at the table when it matters the most.

“What stands between us and an AIDS-free generation is partly due to the persistent stigma that even now continues to spread fear, ignorance, discrimination and isolation and undermines efforts for prevention treatment and care,” said Rodrigue. “Breaking the silence, we must continue to have dialogues like this to promote open, honest and respectful discourse in order to turn the tide.”