I recently asked a physician in Zimbabwe by email whether stigma is still a problem for people with HIV/AIDS. Here is his reply:
Yes, in some sections stigma remains a big problem for people with HIV/AIDS, especially low-income working-class people who fear being dismissed from work once their employer finds out they are HIV positive, or that they are taking antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).
Stigma is also a problem for parents with children with HIV, especially teenagers. Parents find it extremely difficult to tell their children about their status, how the kids got HIV through vertical transmission, and how their lives will be affected. In some cases parents with kids taking ARVs have lied to them and told them the medication is for congenital heart problems.
Stigma has somewhat gone down in the workplace, with those affected coming out into the open about their status, and most of their colleagues are supportive—-thanks to HAART (highly active antiretroviral therapy). There could be still some problems in areas of heavy manual work, as those affected find it difficult to work from the debilitating effects of HIV/AIDS against heavy manual work, and they usually seclude themselves.
People living with HIV/AIDS are not usually excluded from African society because the family takes care of the affected up to death. But because of poverty, most families are disbanded and most children have resorted to living in the streets. Most HIV/AIDS patients are free to work, socalise, marry, and engage in sports, but once they are physically affected or they test HIV positive, they move away from the family. They blame themselves and look down upon themselves.
Couples who find that their partner is affected, yet they are HIV negative, are also the most hard-hit by stigma, especially if their immediate families find out about their status—-accusations of infidelity often lead to the family breaking up.
This doctor’s thoughtful reply is a reminder that stigma remains a cause of serious and unnecessary suffering for people and families coping with HIV and AIDS. We can end stigma and the unnecessary suffering it causes, and improve healthcare in the community, by practicing compassion. Compassion means putting ourselves into the shoes of another person, feeling that person’s pain, and then treating that person as we would want to be treated in that circumstance. Whereas stigma burns and hurts, compassion soothes and heals.