Can Talking Defeat AIDS? The International Conference on Stigma Says "Yes"

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton explains how stigma affects the community. Photo: DC HIV/AIDS Examiner.
Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton explains how stigma affects the community. Photo: DC HIV/AIDS Examiner.

Would you rather die than know your HIV status? Some people say 'yes'. That answer is generally brought on by one word: stigma. At Howard University's Cramton Auditorium on Wednesday, AIDS experts, advocates and health educators examined stigma at the first International Conference on Stigma. The conference was sponsored by Howard University Hospital, Howard University's Health Sciences, and the Coalition to End AIDS-related Stigma. Speakers included Dr. Sohail Rana, an HIV/AIDS specialist with Department of Pediatrics, Howard University College of Medicine, U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) Gregorio Millet of the White House Office on National AIDS Policy and Miss America Caressa Cameron. The day long conference was designed to address the stigma that fuels poor responses towards AIDS.

Why Would It Be Necessary to Have a Conference on Stigma?

The subtitle of this conference was The attitude that spreads HIV. It is stigma that causes people who are infected to keep their disease a secret and consequently infect others. Dr. Sohail Rana says, "Stigma kills people and spreads HIV." In his presentation, Dr. Rana highlighted a study of people in DC that showed some surprising findings. One result revealed that 30% of the people surveyed would not feel comfortable sitting next to a person with HIV. Another result showed that 20% of the people would not send their children to school with a child who has HIV. Miss America shared her personal story about growing up with an adopted sibling with HIV. "[Even] some family members wouldn't allow their kids to come over and play with our toys because they were afraid of their children somehow getting it."

Several Voices. One Message.

The conference included workshops on topics such as Faith, Spirituality and HIV, stigma effects on youth and families and the criminalization of HIV. Panelists and speakers were an assortment of people from the AIDS community who are infected and have been affected by the virus. Medical doctors, media personalities, and local government representatives such as DC Councilmember David Catania all spoke about how devastating the disease has become due to stigma. They urged the community to be visible and speak out about how the stigma kills more than the disease itself. Steven Balious, Vice President for Community Affairs at National Association of People With AIDS stated, "People are not afraid of the test. They are afraid of the result because knowing their status means the added weight of doing something about it. So that's where the stigma comes in." The message from the participants was clear: talking about HIV and AIDS will diminish the stigma.

Get tested. Get care. Get involved.

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