Dec 18, 2010

The Price of Stigma

When it comes to discussing HIV/AIDS in Egypt, most probably you’d be faced by either one of two reactions: one that is characterized by fear, shock, and discomfort or a reaction marked by denial and disdain. I would like to discuss why.

AIDS has come to be associated with sex and death, and both topics are hard to digest in our culture. We avoid discussing sexuality-related issues in our adolescence within the family and formal education. Comprehensive sexuality education is nearly absent and only limited information are given through curriculums and has been further abridged recently. Little awareness exists of HIV, its modes of transmission, prevention, and treatment. No wonder then that most people experience feelings of discomfort and fear. However, we need to listen and understand attentively because ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds hate!

Clearly, the biggest obstacle to HIV awareness work is the stigma against people living with HIV. People living with HIV have to suffer in silence, shameful to seek help or treatment and if it was revealed that they are HIV+, they’re shunned, mistreated by their community, workplace, and even their close and loved ones. This life of isolation is the killer in the case of HIV, rather than the disease itself.

The stigma is even greater when it is coupled with being a member of Most At Risk Populations (MARPs). These are groups of people who more frequently engage in behaviors that lead to HIV transmission.  These behaviors include unprotected sex, sex with multiple partners, and using the same injecting equipment. Such populations include men who have sex with men, female sex workers and their clients, and injecting drug users.

A comprehensive survey of Egyptian youth revealed that only 21% of them would be willing to interact with a person living with HIV, which is definitely disturbing. We all need to realize that stigmatizing those groups leads to higher spread of the virus into the community, by denying those people access to health and awareness services, and not allowing them to get the care and compassion they need. We need to face this, because we might have a low number of people living with HIV in Egypt, but the risk is even greater with this level of ignorance and stigma, plus we are not gods to judge their behaviors.  

The second reaction of denial and scorn comes from the view that HIV is a Western problem and that our moral society and religiosity is enough to keep us away from it; they see that maintaining our ‘cultural norms’ is the solution to HIV, and all other problems perhaps! A mere reality check negates this view.

However, some others question the amount of funding and prioritization given to HIV aid at the expense of improving overall health systems, which may be a valid concern. However, HIV remains a global issue that affect the life of millions. It demands nothing less than our diligent, tolerant attention.