Let’s watch destigmatisation of AIDS closely – it may kill us

Just a few years ago, we were all told that stigma was a big obstacle in the fight against HIV and AIDS. And it probably was and still is. Campaigns centred their messages around elimination of stigma – encouraging people to talk openly about the virus in the belief that this would demystify it and spread important knowledge.

To a large extent this approach, coupled with antiretroviral treatment (ART), prevention and condom use has produced positive results for many countries.

However, in South Africa a report published this month by the Human Sciences Research Council shows that prevalence has increased from 10.6% in 2008 to 12.2% in 2012.

The interesting thing is that the increased prevalence is not always a bad thing, because according to the HSRC, this is partly due to the successfully expanded antiretroviral treatment programme. That means, people living with HIV and AIDS are now living longer because they have access to treatment.

Getting on and sticking to the treatment programme requires some level of knowledge and understanding of the virus. Perhaps the most important knowledge is that the earlier an infected person starts on treatment, combined with a healthy lifestyle, the longer they will live and the better their quality of life.

So, we are now at the stage where it’s relatively ok to talk about the virus. It’s ok to take antiretroviral drugs because they drastically increase survival chances. The fight against stigma still continues but inroads have been made.

However, this has brought about an interesting dynamic. Many people now seem to consider the HI virus like any other virus that one has to take drugs for. There is no longer the heavy aura or mystery around it. In some people’s minds, it is no longer the death sentence that it used to be and therefore not that fearful monster that was painted in yesteryears.

One woman interviewed said “HIV is like flu, it’s like any other disease. I actually think that it is better than many diseases because at least there are drugs for it. There is no need to be scared of it anymore.”

And because people are no longer that ‘scared ‘of the virus, unintended consequences of this destigmatisation have begun to emerge.

According to the HSRC, compared to 2008 data, condom use has declined in South Africa in all age groups, except for the 50 years and older group and there has been an increase in multiple partnerships among sexually active people aged 15 years and older.

Professor Leickness Simbayi, Executive Director at HSRC says; “The increases in some risky sexual behaviours are disappointing, as this partly accounts for why there are so many new infections still occurring in South Africa.”

Although significant inroads have been made in the antiretroviral treatment programme, the country has conceded that behavioural, social, and structural prevention interventions are needed to reduce the high rates of new HIV infections.

Could South Africa, like many other countries, have unintentionally reaped complacency and acceptance from the successes of destigmatisation? Because we can now talk about the virus openly does not mean we should drop our guard. If the truth be told, it is still nothing like flu on many levels.

Post published in: Africa News

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