HIV Stigma Conference Examines Health Care and Human Rights

Does the mere fact that you are a human being entitle you to health care? Panelists and guests at this year's International Conference on Stigma in Washington, D.C., say, "Yes, it does." The conference was held at Howard University on Nov. 21. The theme of the conference was "Lean on Me! -- Standing Together for Human Rights." During the conference, participants explored the importance of granting people access to health care as a basic necessity and a part of human rights.

Health Care Is a Human Right

The conference centered on a lively discussion about the connection between basic human rights and health care. While some argue that health care is not a human right, but rather a human need, panelists at this conference disagree. Taking a cue from the U.N.'s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, experts on the opening session panel agree that, in order for there to be equity in health, every human being must have access to basic things such as food, housing, privacy and the right to seek and to receive education.

Achieving these basic rights is where the struggle begins. In many countries, including the U.S., access is the biggest hurdle. For example, housing is a proven HIV prevention strategy. It's even listed as a goal in the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Yet, according to the National AIDS Housing Coalition, it is estimated that 500,000 Americans living with HIV will need some kind of housing assistance. When one's housing situation is uncertain, it can be difficult to tend to one's health.

The panel experts also agree that if health care is a human right, then everyone should have equitable access to quality care that is free from discrimination and treats people with respect. Sohail Rana, M.D., conference founder and professor of pediatrics and child health at Howard University, says that acceptance is the core of human rights. "To me human rights mean being accepted. It's about being treated that same as everyone else. Anytime people feel excluded they can lose their will to live. Love and acceptance heals. Stigma kills."

Stigma as a Barrier to Human Rights

Access to care is not the only barrier to treatment when it comes to HIV. Stigma can present a barrier as well. In 2014, people are still grossly undereducated about HIV and how it is spread. One study in Britain found that, in 2014, nearly 28% of the people surveyed erroneously believe that kissing or sharing a glass can spread the virus. While a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, in 2012, 27% of "Americans do not know that HIV cannot be transmitted by sharing a drinking glass" and 44% of Americans are "somewhat uncomfortable" or "very uncomfortable" with having their food prepared by someone who is HIV positive. It's tough to combat stigma and get people to discuss HIV openly when faced with these types of statistics.

During the conference, Rana shared a story of one of his patients who refused to take her medications because of the stigma attached to HIV. According to Rana, the patient felt judged and feared that, in the end, her medications would not save her life. Subsequently, she died from complications due to AIDS. Unfortunately, there are many other people who live with the same kind of fear as Rana's patient. They may avoid taking medications or seeing certain physicians because their immediate community will know what they are being treated for. In order to move toward an AIDS-free generation, stigma will have to be removed so that patients can get treatment without fear.

Take Action

Now that Republicans control both the Senate and the House of Representatives, they will probably attempt to repeal Obamacare -- even if it is a futile endeavor. However, action can be taken to ensure that the Affordable Care Act remains intact and expands to states that did not adopt Medicaid expansion. There are grassroots organizations such as the Vermont Workers' Center that pushed for Act 48, a legislation to ensure health care for all citizens, to be passed in its state in 2011. The constant pressure worked on the legislators. It can work for others, too.

Aside from fighting for human rights, advocates can work on breaking down barriers by talking about HIV and sharing science-based facts about the virus. Stigma thrives on ignorance. But when people discuss the issue of discrimination and overcome personal fears, stigma becomes weak. One doesn't need a conference to start the conversation. Just the will to rethink the norm as we know it.

Candace Y.A. Montague is a native of Washington, D.C., and covers HIV news all around the District. She has covered fundraisers, motorcycle rides, town hall meetings, house balls, Capitol Hill press conferences, election campaigns, protests and an International AIDS Conference for The D.C. Examiner.com, emPower News Magazine_, the Black AIDS Institute and TheBody.com. One of her two master's degrees is in community health promotion and education. She is also an educator and a mother of two._