December 1s is World AIDS Day – and the theme this year is “Stigma and Discrimination.” Health officials and activists say stigma is a problem throughout the world, but it can take many forms and vary from one country to another.
Ostracism, rejection, avoidance and even violence are some of the forms stigma may take. Among those who have been studying the problem is Gregory Herek, professor of psychology at the University of California at Davis. Since the early 1980’s – when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was first making itself known – Professor Herek tracked the rise in discrimination against those infected with the then mysterious disease. He says the word stigma dates back to the 1300’s and is “derived from the same Greek roots as the verb ‘to stick,’ that is to pierce or tattoo.”
He says, "Stigma related to AIDS or any other condition isn’t really something that just exists in the minds of individuals. It’s something that really exists within a culture, within a society. And when we say a group is “stigmatized,” what we mean is that there’s a general understanding that everyone shares a certain knowledge that the people who belong to that group are devalued socially, that they’re looked down upon. And even people who don’t look down upon the individuals in that group still understand that that’s the social judgment. That’s sort of the group opinion about those individuals."
He says fear and ignorance help fuel stigma.
The professor says, "People are afraid of contagion. You know, they’re afraid for their own health. And there is a lot of misunderstanding about how HIV is transmitted. Here in the United States we still see large numbers of people – close to majorities in some cases – of people who believe HIV can be transmitted through casual social contacts, such as sharing a drinking glass or even using a public toilet or donating blood to a blood bank. So we see widespread ignorance about how HIV is transmitted. And frequently that ignorance translates into a fear of being around people with HIV – a fear of contracting HIV just from those casual social interactions."
Professor Herek says those imposing stigma mistakenly think they are acting in a perfectly normal, rational way - believing people with HIV have been rejected by society with good reason.
He says, "The people who contract the illness are perceived as somehow being punished or somehow being bad people. And the reason is because they belong to groups that weren’t really liked anyway. In the United States and in many other countries around the world one of the main focuses for that kind of stigma is gay and bisexual men, who were often condemned by different religious organizations and by many people in the society, not because of HIV but because they were gay. But then when HIV struck and it was associated strongly with men who were gay and bisexual in some countries, such as the United States, the dislike for those groups translated into then a general stigma toward people with HIV as well."
He says it’s difficult enough for a person with HIV/AIDS to be seriously ill when he or she has the support of family, friends and social services. But he says it becomes a “horrible burden to bear” when that person must hide the illness from society due to stigma.
Professor herek says, "It’s absolutely vital that we make people understand you can’t get HIV through touching someone, through sharing a drinking glass with them, through hugging them and through helping them. And that may go some distance toward helping to relieve some of the more obviously manifestations of stigma."
He says a fatal illness is usually more stigmatized than a non-fatal one. So, if and when a cure is found, the stigma surrounding AIDS may diminish. But he says that will be a long, slow process.
The University of California psychology professor is calling for renewed education campaigns about the AIDS virus - and how it is actually transmitted. He also says countries must mount broad-based anti-stigma campaigns.