Stigma of HIV keeps thousands silent about their status
The retiree was sitting in a bed at South Shore Hospital last December, chatting with two visiting friends, when her physician walked into the room and declared, “I understand you have HIV.”
It was supposed to be a secret, and the patient insisted to the friends from her retirement community that she didn’t carry the virus. But they left quickly and one no longer speaks to her.
“We used to eat together all the time. Now we never do. She just avoids me as much as she can,” said the 65-year-old woman, who wanted to remain anonymous. “My closest girlfriend doesn’t even know I have HIV. I don’t want people to shun me. I’d be alone.”
Three decades after the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, thousands of people like her are unwilling to disclose their condition because they fear losing their jobs, their friends, or a significant other.
More than one in five Massachusetts residents living with HIV reported that they “work hard” to keep their infection status a secret from everyone, and nearly half said that they had not revealed their status to anyone outside of immediate family, according to a 2009 study conducted by Harvard Law School’s Health Law and Policy Clinic.
Early treatment of HIV infections is one of the best ways to slow the spread of the virus, but the stigma that still surrounds the disease leads people to delay HIV testing, put off needed care, or not reveal their infection status to medical providers, the authors wrote.