Stigma and discrimination fuel AIDS epidemic, UN agency warns

Stigma and discrimination fuel AIDS epidemic, UN agency warns

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Confronting stigma and discrimination is essential for effective responses to HIV/AIDS, according to the United Nations' agency mandated to fight the pandemic.

"HIV-related stigma and discrimination remain an immense barrier to effectively fighting the most devastating epidemic humanity has ever known," said Dr. Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). "If HIV-related stigma and discrimination are not tackled, AIDS will blight the 21st century just as racism affected the 20th century."

Dr. Piot made his comments today at the launch of the "UNAIDS Compendium on Discrimination, Stigmatization and Denial," a set of reports that use case studies from India and Uganda. The launch was held during the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, which is taking place in Durban, South Africa, from 31 August to 7 September.

According to UNAIDS, fear of discrimination may prevent people from seeking treatment for AIDS or from acknowledging their HIV status publicly. In many countries, people with - or suspected of having - HIV may be turned away from health care services, denied housing and employment, shunned by their friends and colleagues, turned down for insurance coverage or refused entry into foreign countries. In some cases, they may be evicted from home by their families, divorced by their spouses, and suffer physical violence or even murder.

"HIV thrives on intolerance and xenophobia," Dr. Piot said. "It is always easier to blame others for the spread of HIV, but progress against the epidemic is only possible when communities own the problem of AIDS themselves."

According to UNAIDS, denial goes hand in hand with discrimination, with many people continuing to deny that HIV exists in their communities. Social taboos about sexuality may prevent open discussion and effective prevention education. Many people do not know they are HIV-positive and are afraid to be tested because of the stigma attached to seropositivity, the Programme said.

Some 36.1 million people were living with HIV or AIDS at the end of last year, and 3 million died from AIDS-related illnesses, the UN says. While the majority of infections are in sub-Saharan Africa (25.3 million), the epidemic is intensifying in many other parts of the world.