World AIDS Day: Eliminating stigma key to defeating the virus


Australia is a long way off from defeating the stigma that surrounds the virus, new research reveals.

Thirty-seven million people around the world are living with HIV, including 25,000 in Australia.

One of those is Dr John Rule, who has been living with the virus since 1996.

He told SBS News that during the 90s, the virus was "regarded as a death sentence."

Advances in treatment mean that is no longer the case, but people living with the blood-borne virus still face stigma, according to new research from the University of New South Wales. 

Dr John Rule is one of 25,000 people living with HIV in Australia.
Dr John Rule is one of 25,000 people living with HIV in Australia.

The findings, released on World AIDS Day, reveal that 74 per cent of the almost 200 people surveyed said they'd experienced stigma or discrimination in the last year.

More than half of respondents reported negative or different treatment by health workers.

The research also shows the persistence of stigma toward people most likely to be exposed to HIV.

In a parallel survey of 1000 members of the general public, 86 per cent indicated they would behave negatively toward people who inject drugs with 28 per cent indicating this would ‘often’ or ‘always’ be the case.

The study shows the overall level of stigma toward sex workers was 64 per cent.

And despite progress against homophobia, 38 per cent of participants said they would behave negatively toward someone based on sexual orientation.

"That still indicates there is a lot of work to do to ensure the whole of the community understands HIV and how it's being lived in 2018," Professor Carla Treloar, Director of the Centre for Social Research in Health at UNSW told SBS News.

While fear, stigma and ignorance defined the HIV epidemic that swept across the globe in the 1980s, today it's a manageable illness.

Dr Rule insists people living with HIV can live long, healthy lives. 

"We know that if you get tested for HIV, and if you get treated for HIV, your viral load will be low and you cannot transmit HIV. And also, your own health will be maintained because you won't get the diseases that would otherwise occur if you weren't on HIV treatments. " 

People living with HIV still face stigma, according to UTS research.
People living with HIV still face stigma, according to UTS research.

More people than ever are living with HIV and yet, half of these people don't even know they have the virus.

And experts say the stigma behind it often prevents people from seeking medical advice or treatment.

"We find that stigma is the thing that makes people hesitate to ask for an HIV test from their doctor, Darryl O'Donnell from the Australian Foundation of AIDS Organisations told SBS News.

"It also leaves doctors hesitating to ask their patients whether or not they have an HIV test. So these have very practical effects for HIV. Stigma really is the greatest barrier we face to making further progress on HIV."

Nearly a million people still die every year, mostly because they don’t know they have HIV and are either not on treatment or start it too late.

The World Health Organisation hopes to eliminate the virus by 2030, but say that's only possible if the stigma is defeated first.

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