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New Study Reveals Continued Stigma and Discomfort Around HIV

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday August 27, 2021

A new survey looking at the stigma around HIV has found a pervasive blend of ignorance and discomfort regarding the virus and people living with it — and it's getting worse.

The "2021 State of HIV Stigma" survey was conducted by GLAAD in partnership with Gilead Sciences and the Southern AIDS Coalition to measure how well the general public understands HIV and investigate the level of social stigma directed at those who are living with the virus.

The results were less than encouraging. "The findings reflect a vast lack of understanding of HIV and how it can be prevented, as well as significant discomfort and unfounded fear about people living with HIV," GLAAD disclosed.

Indeed, comprehensive, fact-based knowledge around HIV has actually slipped among the general populace in recent years. "The study found less than half of Americans, 48%, feel knowledgeable about HIV, down three points from a year ago," GLAAD specified.

The survey results suggested a lack of understanding about how the virus is transmitted and how well medical regimens work in preventing HIV transmission.

"Only 64% of those surveyed agree with the true statement that medications exist to protect someone from contracting HIV; just 42% agree with the true statement that people living with HIV who are on proper medications cannot transmit the virus," GLAAD summarized.

NBC News underscored the point: "More than a quarter (28 percent) of HIV-negative millennials (ages 25 to 36 at the time) said they had avoided hugging, talking to or being friends with someone with the virus, and 30 percent said they'd prefer not to interact socially at all with people with HIV," the outlet reported, citing a 2019 survey.

That lack of understanding translates into social stigma. "Fifty-three percent of non-LGBTQ people surveyed noted they would be uncomfortable interacting with a medical professional who has HIV, 44% uncomfortable around a hairstylist or barber living with HIV, 35% with a teacher living with HIV," GLAAD disclosed.

Though the lack of factual understanding was high across the entire country, it was higher in the South and Midwest, which were tied at 54% when respondents indicated they would be uneasy with an HIV-positive medical professional.

When compared to HIV rates by region, the results suggested a grim picture. "The Deep South has the highest rates of HIV diagnosis, yet the study reveals that the U.S. South also has some of the highest discomfort levels pertaining to the virus," GLAAD noted. "This is a perfect storm for the perpetuation of misinformation.

"There's a correlation there," Southern AIDS Coalition Executive Director Dafina Ward told NBC News. "A lack of information drives the stigma, which feeds the feeling you have to hide. It's a vicious cycle."

Public health researchers Thurka Sangaramoorthy and Joseph B. Richardson of the University of Maryland, writing for The Conversation, noted that "Southern states have the highest rates of new HIV-positive diagnoses, the highest percentage of people living with HIV and the lowest rates of survival for those who are HIV-positive."

Overall, "Nearly 52 percent of all new diagnoses of HIV in 2015 occurred in southern states, even though only 37 percent of the U.S. population lives in the South," they added.

Educational efforts are lacking. NBC News noted that rather than providing students with fact-based sex education to decrease the prevalence of HIV, sex-ed "tends to be abstinence-only" in the South.

Indeed, the NBC article added, "According to Planned Parenthood, seven Southern states either prohibit sex educators from discussing or answering questions about LGBTQ identities and relationships 'or actually require sex educators to frame LGBTQ identities and relationships negatively.'"

These factors contribute to a culture of silence and fear, with "too many people [believing] the lie that HIV is still a death sentence," GLAAD noted. "In addition, many in the South still fear that HIV and AIDS is something that can be 'caught' by the simple gesture of touch."

Those fears are exacerbated when high-profile figures repeat misinformation. "Hip-hop star DaBaby came under criticism last month for telling fans at the Rolling Loud music festival in Miami to shine their smartphone flashlights if they 'didn't show up today with HIV/AIDS, any of them deadly sexually transmitted diseases that will make you die in two to three weeks,' and made other disparaging remarks about gay men in a viral video," NBC News recalled.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.