HIV Activists, Organizations Call for Less-Stigmatizing Language

Despite what your mother taught you about sticks and stones, words can and often do hurt. To combat language that promotes HIV stigma, many groups and activists are calling for a shift in the conversation.

"The language we use to describe HIV can either empower or stigmatize people living with HIV," lead author Vicki Lynn, MSW, MPH, and five co-authors wrote in a sign-on letter to promote the use of preferred language.

HIVE, the Positive Women's Network - USA and several other HIV activist organizations have signed on to the letter in an effort to end stigmatizing language when referring to people living with chronic medical conditions like HIV.

"Researchers, clinicians, advocates and other professionals often use terms such as 'HIV infected' and 'HIV infections' which further stigmatize PLHIV [people living with HIV]," the letter states. "Being referred to as 'infected' repeatedly by medical professionals, the media, and others begins to have negative consequences on a person's self-worth and confidence."

Using what is called "People First Language" can shift the conversation from talking about the disease back to the person, the letter says. According to the letter, this shift can help to eliminate prejudice and remove value judgments about the person.

People First Language isn't limited to medical conditions -- it calls for the use of other non-judgmental terminology regarding lifestyle choices, household compositions and living arrangements that askew societal norms.

Examples of preferred language cited within the sign-on letter include:

Stigmatizing languagePreferred language
HIV infected personPerson living with HIV, Stage 1 HIV (acute, Stage 2 HIV (clinical latency), or Stage 3 HIV (AIDS)
Positives or HIVers
AIDS or HIV carrier
HIV patient, AIDS patient
Died of AIDS, to die of AIDSDied of AIDS-related illness, AIDS-related complications or end stage HIV
AIDS virusHIV (AIDS is a diagnosis not a virus it cannot be transmitted)
Full­blown AIDSThere is no medical definition for this phrase, simply use the term AIDS, or Stage 3 HIV.
HIV virusThis is redundant; use HIV.
Zero new infectionsZero new transmissions/acquisitions
HIV infectionsHIV transmissions, received an HIV diagnosis
Number of infectionsNumber diagnosed with HIV/ number of acquisitions
Became infectedContracted/acquired
HIV-exposed infantInfant exposed to HIV
Unprotected sexCondomless sex; sex not protected by condoms or antiretroviral prevention methods such as TasP &/or PrEP
Serodiscordant coupleSerodifferent/ magnetic/ mixed status couple
Mother to child transmissionVertical transmission, perinatal transmission
Victim, Innocent Victim, Sufferer, contaminated, infectedPerson living with HIV (never use the term "infected" when referring to a person), survivor
AIDS orphansChildren orphaned by loss of parents or guardians who died of AIDS related complications
AIDS testHIV test
To catch HIVTo contract HIV, diagnosed with HIV
To contract AIDS, To catch AIDSDevelop AIDS, diagnosed with AIDS. AIDS is a diagnosis and not a virus, AIDS is cannot be transmitted or "passed" to someone else.
Prostitute or prostitutionSex worker, sale of sexual services, transactional sex
PromiscuousThis is a value judgment and should be avoided. Use "having multiple partners."
Death Sentence, "HIV is not a death sentence anymore."HIV, chronic health condition, manageable health condition
"HIV does not have to be a life-threatening/ fatal condition."HIV, chronic health condition, manageable health condition
"Tainted" blood; "dirty" needlesBlood containing HIV; shared needles
End HIVEnd HIV transmission/ related deaths/ stigma. PLHIV feel threatened by this, like they need to disappear for HIV to end.
End AIDSBe precise whether or not we are trying to end HIV (avoid, see above) or end AIDS related deaths or diagnoses.

Althea Fung is the community editor for For her thoughts on the healthcare industry, food and other random musing, check out her personal website, follow her on Twitter or stalk her on Facebook.