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Do Some People "Deserve" AIDS?

One Out of Five Think They Do

Spring 2001

Thursday, November 30, 2000 (HealthScout) -- Nearly one in five Americans believe people who get HIV through sex or drug use "deserve" their plight, says a nationwide Internet survey.

These results come on the very eve of World AIDS Day, a time to consider the devastation brought about by the epidemic. The survey was done in August and September and also shows that a large share of people still have the wrong idea about the way the virus is transmitted.

"You might think that, three decades into the epidemic, these beliefs would not be so prevalent," says Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, deputy director of the AIDS Center at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a co-author of the agency-sponsored report.

But while health officials lament the prevalent stigmatization of HIV and AIDS from a humanistic perspective, Valdiserri says such attitudes may be fostering the infection by discouraging people from getting HIV testing and treatment.

"We at the CDC believe that in order to be effective, HIV prevention programs have to tackle this issue of stigma. Fear of being stigmatized can serve as a strong barrier" to HIV services.

As of June 2000, about 750,000 Americans had contracted AIDS and 440,000 had died of the illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although exact numbers aren't available, health officials estimate that close to 1 million people in this country are infected with HIV, the microbe that causes AIDS.

The figures in America are dwarfed by the epidemic in the rest of the world, where more than 36 million people have HIV or full-blown AIDS. So far this year, 3 million people have succumbed to the disease, most of them living in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

In the latest study, Valdiserri's group queried some 5,600 participants in an online health survey about their attitudes toward HIV and their knowledge of how the virus is spread.

One question asked if participants believed that "People who got AIDS through sex or drug use have gotten what they deserved."

While about 80 percent said no, 18.7 percent agreed. "Granted, most people did not agree. But the fact that one out of five answered that people with AIDS got what they deserved is a concern," Valdiserri says.

Also worrisome, the researchers say, is that 40 percent of participants thought they could get AIDS by sharing a glass with an infected person (you can't), and 41 percent said transmission could occur by being coughed or sneezed on (it doesn't).

People who held such beliefs were almost twice as likely to also carry stigmatizing views of the disease as those who were better informed about its biology.

Older, white men were more likely to stigmatize HIV and AIDS, as were those who didn't finish high school or made under $30,000 a year.

Marty Algaze, a spokesman for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City, says his group finds it "truly abhorrent that people feel that way now that this epidemic is 20 years old. We have to remember that AIDS is a disease that anyone can get, and in many parts of the world the disease is spread through heterosexual contact. Instead of saying that people deserve to get sick, what people should be doing is being compassionate and caring."

The Supreme Court in 1998 held that people with HIV and AIDS were shielded from discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. But Catherine Hanssens, director of the AIDS Project at the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay rights group, says that protection "has less than lived up to the hopes and expectations" it first sparked.

People with HIV have had mixed success in lawsuits alleging discrimination, especially those involving health insurance claims, Hanssens says. And health-care providers living with the virus find themselves in a particularly troubling environment, she says, because of the prospect of losing their jobs. "We've had some wins and losses. There are areas of the ADA that have not been generously enforced," Hanssens says.

Sources: Interviews with Ronald Valdiserri, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of the AIDS Center, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Catherine Hanssens, director, AIDS Project, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, New York City; and Marty Algaze, spokesman, Gay Men's Health Crisis, New York City; CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Dec. 1, 2000.

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This article was provided by Women Alive. It is a part of the publication Women Alive Newsletter.