Written by Standard Issue

Health

World Aids Day: Wear your red ribbon and #StopStigma

As the media onslaught continues following Charlie Sheen’s HIV diagnosis becoming public knowledge, Marcy Madzikanda from Terrence Higgins Trust has a message for us all on World Aids Day.

Marcy Madzikanda from Terrence Higgins Trust.

Marcy Madzikanda from Terrence Higgins Trust.

It was surreal to watch the way the media reported the story of the ‘suspected Hollywood celebrity’ living with HIV.

Now that Charlie Sheen has been ‘forced’ to disclose his status amid multi-million-dollar blackmail allegations and rumours he was having unprotected sex with other people, I wonder if he will also face jail time like Michael L Johnson, a 23-year-old student and wrestler from Missouri, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison earlier this year, for infecting a partner with HIV. Or will Sheen – perhaps due to his global celebrity – be able to bypass this further HIV injustice that hails from a different era?

Am I happy about the way he was forced to disclose his status? Of course not. It is no one else’s business but his, and the people he was intimate with.

In a free society we are all responsible for our own sexual health and it is a basic human right to have sexual relationships. Whose responsibility is it to protect you from contracting a sexually transmitted infection? I’d imagine the answer for many of us would lie with ourselves.

As it is our own responsibility to eat healthily (or not), exercise (or not) and use birth control (shudder at the thought of not), why is it so easy for people to feel they have the right to comment on someone’s medical diagnosis? Why would anyone want to disclose their HIV status to someone they were flirting with? Events in the news could also cause you to question why you would want to test, let alone disclose your status, as the fear of being judged is not something we willingly inflict upon ourselves.

We often hear about HIV stigma, but how many of us are aware of how it affects people from all walks of life? Last week we saw the devastating effect stigma – which led to blackmail – had on Charlie Sheen.

Pastor Elizabeth, a London-based African faith leader who was ordained in 2004, is another person whose life was shattered by stigma.

When she told the founder of her church that she and her husband were living with HIV, he immediately told her to shut down her branch. She was also told to stop taking her HIV medication as prayer was enough to cure HIV. She believed what she was told and encouraged her husband to stop taking his treatment as well.

They spent three years off their medication, praying, and believing that this was all they needed. They both nearly lost their lives because of this.

Pastor Elizabeth’s decision to talk about her experiences is not meant to shame the church into action. Rather it is about highlighting the myths and misconceptions surrounding HIV in the black African community. This lack of knowledge has caused many people from the community to die.

Those who are diagnosed with HIV when their immune systems are compromised, and start treatment when their immune system is already damaged, could often have saved themselves years of ill health by testing and starting treatment earlier. Pastor Elizabeth is passionate about telling faith leaders not to stop people taking their medication.

She says: “HIV is just a virus in the blood not in the spirit. If you are HIV positive and anyone tells you stop taking your medication they are misleading you; you need to take your medication.”

“Events in the news could also cause you to question why you would want to test, let alone disclose your status, as the fear of being judged is not something we willingly inflict upon ourselves.”

It is also important to remember that many black Africans living in the UK saw AIDS ravage their families and communities in Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. They remember the stigma and how HIV was perceived as having something to do with lifestyle, views that are still held by some today.

It’s a known fact that being a married woman in Africa places you at a higher risk of acquiring HIV. For many African women, who are caught up in the immigration process and find themselves forced into relationships, the ability to negotiate safer sex and condom use – or encourage testing – is impossible, as they would most likely be subjected to violence from their partners.

Looking at how the news about Charlie Sheen’s HIV status has been reported in the press, why would someone living with HIV choose to tell people in their community? Aside from press intrusion, look at how he was treated by the people he did disclose to, and the way he was forced into revealing his HIV status.

The verbal, mental and physical abuse some people have been subjected to post disclosure makes me think we are still living in the Dark Ages.

Did you know…

• An estimated 103,700 people in the UK have HIV.

• Of these, 17 per cent are unaware of their HIV infection and are at risk of compromising their own health and passing the virus on to others.

• Most new HIV infections come from people who don’t know they have it.

• Someone on effective HIV treatment is unlikely to pass on the virus.

• People diagnosed late with HIV die on average 10 years early.

• If treated early, people with HIV can expect to live as long as everyone else.

Get tested, get the facts, and wear a red ribbon this World AIDS Day.

Marcy Madzikanda is a health improvement specialist at Terrence Higgins Trust

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Written by Standard Issue