Schwab: Stigma surrounding HIV misinformed, outdated

Since the early 1980s when the human immunodeficiency virus first appeared inside United States borders, a wave of stigma has accompanied not only those afflicted with the cumbersome disease but also specific ethnic and social groups. These negative sentiments are completely unacceptable and harm society’s progress toward eradicating the virus.

We all know the facts about HIV and AIDS – at least the basics. You can’t get it from hugging, touching or kissing someone with the disease. The only ways to get infected are through unprotected sex, blood-to-blood contact, sharing of needles in drug-abuse environments and mother-to-child transmission.

In this sense, HIV is less frightening than the common cold, as a simple cough is all that is needed to infect someone – and thousands of people die each year from the flu. Yet the flu carries virtually no stigma in comparison.

One social group that constantly faces unfair adversity in terms of HIV is gay men. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “men who have sex with other men” is the subpopulation that is experiencing the most new infections in recent years. As of 2009, over 295,000 gay men have died in the U.S. of HIV.

While these statistics are alarming, they don’t provide people with the right to stigmatize the entire homosexual population. When the virus first grabbed the attention of society, it was thought that only gay people could contract the disease. People called it the “gay plague,” and many believed the disease to be divine punishment for going against the biblical stance on homosexuality.

Of course, this is simply not true. Heterosexual people can just as easily become infected with HIV and die from the disease. Yet the gay community still has to face this stigma. As gay rights have become a bigger and bigger issue, especially in the recent election, extremists continue to irrationally cite high incidences of disease as a reason to block the movement.

While the entire gay community exemplifies that false notions fuel disease-associated stigmatization – even if individuals are not infected – once people become HIV-positive, another set of societal hurdles are thrown at them.

As previously stated, everyday interactions with an HIV-positive individual will not cause transmission of the virus. There is an unfounded reluctance, however, to involve HIV-positive people in social situations, and there is a tendency to isolate them.

Education has played a major role in combating the spread of disease. By pushing ideas such as contraception, society has been able to start to defend itself from a seemingly unbeatable disease. Unfortunately, the constant bombardment of information and mainstream discussion of HIV has crippled society with a phobia of the disease and, subsequently, of infected individuals.

This sentiment stems from the fact that there is no cure and, until recently, no effective treatment. If you contracted HIV, it was a death sentence; recent innovations such as antiretroviral treatments, however, have rendered the virus highly manageable.

Despite these advances in treatment, people with HIV are still treated as if they are cesspools of disease that must be avoided at all cost.

So how do we fix a paradoxical problem? Lack of education causes misunderstanding and withholding of rights among certain groups of people, yet perpetually shining a spotlight on the potential consequences of HIV creates a society constantly in fear.