Six ago I remember going on a class trip to an orphanage. In the middle of group-play with the children a young boy was singled out by a nurse. She said that he was HIV+, and suddenly a wealth of blank space opened up around him as people rapidly moved away. He sat in the middle, dejected, playing alone with his ball.
I always reflect on that moment each year on this day. In 1988 the World Health Organisation declared December 1st to be World AIDS Day. Perhaps more than anything World AIDS Day highlights the fact that stigma kills; too many people are not tested, or do not get access to medication because of fear of engaging openly about HIV. In some countries this stigma manifests in false conspiracies about those with HIV as being either promiscuous, sex workers, or drug users who therefore “deserve it”. In others governments deny there is even such a disease within the borders of their nation.
For some HIV remains stuck as a Western 80s Gay horror, or a impoverished African nightmare, but really it is just a virus that can impact anyone. Advances in medication mean that with the right treatment many doctors declare it more manageable than diabetes, but still the language we use to describe it betrays a harsh moral judgement – “Are you clean?”
Six years ago I instinctively moved away from the boy and then spent the rest of the day guilty playing with him, allowing him to sip from my water bottle. Other students were horrified, but they lacked an awareness about how the virus worked outside of “knowing” that it was a death sentence. Even with my education the stigma meant I too remained hesitant and stiff with him, wondering what I would feel if he somehow infected me.
There are approximately 36.9 million people in the world living with HIV. Harm reduction measures are often labelled as encouraging “risk-taking” behaviour – PrEP medication is not widely accessible, needle-exchanges are frequently shoot down, and safer sex measures necessitate that people are actually educated about safer sex in the first place.
Stigma is most of the hurdles. The tools are already here.