Marin Voice: Fight against AIDS and stigma still far from over

Thursday is UNAIDS’ Zero Discrimination Day. HIV-related stigma, perceived and real, is a major issue for people who are attempting to express themselves openly and live healthy and genuine lives.

Stigma is a significant barrier to seeking and receiving needed health and behavioral health services; it insinuates itself into how we treat ourselves and others. It is essential that within our communities we engage in open and safe discussions about the subtleties of discrimination, the shame it produces.

For the sake of individuals, families and our communities as a whole, we must work together to reduce the damage caused by decades of homophobia, AIDS phobia and criminalization, sex and gender discrimination and racism — locally and globally. 

With the advent of antiretroviral treatment and its widespread availability, even in the developing world, the past decade has seen incredible progress toward HIV targets to end AIDS. That’s right, we stand at an historic moment when the opportunity to end the deadliest epidemic in human history is both possible and near.

UNAIDS has declared that if we can get 90 percent of people living with HIV tested; 90 percent of those in treatment; and 90 percent of those adherent so they are noninfectious, we can break this disease and usher in an AIDS-free generation.

However, they’ve also found that stigma and discrimination may pose the greatest barrier to achieving this goal in our lifetime. Stigma and discrimination create barriers to people accessing HIV services, putting lives at risk. 

According to a UNAIDS report, people living with HIV who experience high levels of HIV-related stigma are more than twice as likely to delay treatment than people who do not perceive such stigma. When people wait until they are very ill with HIV before seeking care, they are less likely to respond well to the treatment and less likely to live productive and healthy lives that can come with adherence to treatment. 

Specifically, according to UNAIDS, “people living with HIV avoid going to clinics for fear of having their status disclosed or of suffering further stigma and discrimination based on their HIV status.” Across 19 countries with available data, one in five people living with HIV avoided going to a clinic or hospital because they feared stigma or discrimination related to their HIV status, and one in four people living with HIV reported having experienced discrimination in health-care settings.

Here in Marin, GAIA and the Spahr Center are keenly aware of the impact stigma and discrimination have on HIV prevention and treatment. The Spahr Center provides services and support for LGBTQ youth, adults, seniors and families and for people living with and affected by HIV. The agency is dedicated to working in partnership with all in Marin County who understand the importance of eradicating stigma and its ramifications.

The Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) is innovating programs in HIV hot spots in sub-Saharan Africa to deliver services in a way that encourages health-seeking behavior and does not stigmatize those who are HIV-positive. 

To expand community awareness of the problem, GAIA and the Spahr Center are co-hosting a free event sponsored by Dominican University. “Getting to Zero: Confronting HIV-related Stigma and Discrimination, Locally and Globally,” is a film premiere and panel discussion to celebrate Zero Discrimination Day.

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