In the United States, about 1.1 million people are HIV positive, and nearly 50,000 people contract the virus each year—with African Americans and Latinos disproportionately affected. Men who have sex with men—especially those of color—have among the highest infection rates across the globe. Millions of lives have been saved since the introduction of effective antiretroviral treatment in 1996—but there are still many negative beliefs, biases, stigmas and fears surrounding people who are positive. Many experts believe that stigma is a major driver in perpertuating the epidemic.
"Stemming Stigma" is my latest article and one of two cover stories for the July/August 2014 issue of POZ.
New HIV cases among men who have sex with men are increasing as they flatten or even fall among other groups. Advocates blame HIV stigma among MSM, which they claim has created a "viral divide."This divide is probably the most evident on social networking apps and hookup sites. Phrases such as “DDF UB2” (short for “drug and disease free, you be too”) and questions such as “Are you clean?” have become commonplace. Many HIV-positive gay men note anecdotally that when they challenge HIV-negative men about such language (“Does having HIV make me ‘unclean’?”) the responses are often filled with contempt.
Additional surveys have shown stigma remains a significant barrier to care and treatment. A 2009 Lambda Legal study shows that 63 percent of HIV-positive LGBT people experienced discrimination from health care professionals. Other times, the stigma keeps people from even seeking medical care.
"Let’s say you’re a black gay man living in a community of lower socioeconomic status," says Terrance Moore, director of health policy at the National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors (NASTAD). "You could be very concerned that someone is going to see you walk into an HIV testing facility, so you may not access that test." Similarly, you might not want to be seen taking meds, so you skip doses—which can increase your viral load and the risk of transmitting HIV.
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