August 14, 2012
Stigma keeps thousands of people with HIV from disclosing their status, fearing a loss of employment, friends or a significant other. And it keeps others from getting early testing and treatment, which can help prevent HIV's spread.
More than one in five Massachusetts residents with HIV report they "work hard" to keep their infection secret from everyone, according to a 2009 Harvard Law School's Health Law and Policy Clinic study. Nearly half of the 284 people with HIV surveyed had not disclosed their HIV status to anyone outside the immediate family. About 30 percent reported recent poor treatment by health care providers or stigma from doctors and support staff. Some reported unwanted disclosure of their HIV status.
Lingering myths contribute to stigma, leading some people to avoid those with HIV. In a 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation survey of almost 2,600 Americans, 18 percent report they would not feel comfortable working with a person who has HIV. Almost 30 percent would not want their child to have a teacher with HIV. Nearly half would not want food prepared by someone with HIV.
"Some who used to be active in our organization are pulling away," said Rebecca Haag, president of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. "They tell me they don't want HIV to be their primary label on the job or when they're dating someone new."
Such attitudes are one barrier to testing for people at risk of infection, said HIV specialists. However, another barrier was removed last month, when a new Massachusetts law was implemented to allow verbal consent for HIV testing. "We pushed for this law to try to normalize testing for HIV," said Haag.