Project: The African AIDS Pandemic

AIDS stigma difficult to overcome

by John Carr

Stigma has followed HIV/AIDS everywhere it goes. In the Western society, it is still regarded by many as the homosexual disease. In Africa the stigma is targeted in a different direction. HIV/AIDS patients have been stereotyped as evil, promiscuous and contagious.

There are essentially two types of stigma. First, there is a high level of personal stigma associated with getting tested and treatment. Second, there is social stigma imposed upon those infected with the virus. Botswana’s HIV/AIDS program seeks to address both of these issues.

Rhinos run across the highway in a rural part of eastern
South Africa.

"Before, people would not seek help," said a hospital receptionist at the Kasane Hospital in Northern Botswana. "They were scared. If they tested positive, there was no hope for them. They would rather not know." Not knowing one's status, however, leads to spreading the virus. Now, with the antiretroviral drugs, there is a new hope: "With the antiretroviral medicine," she said, "there is an alternative where before there was not. Now, if they test positive, they can get medicine and live another 10, 15 or 20 years!"

In an interview a general practitioner in eastern Botswana admitted stigma still impedes the fight against HIV/AIDS. "Stigma is still very high and continues to remain high." Even though posters filled the walls of the waiting room that read "AIDs discrimination is Against the Law!" and "Call this [number] if you have Experienced Discrimination from your Employer!" There are countless stories about people who have been shunned by their families, friends and employers once the word is out.

When asked if he acts differently around HIV positive patients, he hesitated and answered, "Yes." He explained that he is much more cautious around them. He said even patients who come get regular treatments for tuberculosis are stereotyped and may be subject to discrimination. Often, people think these patients are seeking HIV/AIDS treatment.

Ultimately the stigma hurts the patients and the community. People avoid seeking treatment, which hurts their own quality of life. Furthermore, when people fail to get tested, they spread the disease throughout the community. Stigma is a double-edged sword for everyone. The education programs continue to fight the stigma, but it is a very difficult obstacle to overcome.