Education the key to removing ‘huge’ stigma surrounding HIV says NUIG lecturer

Education is the key to removing the “huge” stigma which continues to be associated with being HIV positive, a leading Galway based researcher into the condition said this week.

Dr Grace McCormack - a senior lecturer and head of zoology at NUI Galway and one of the joint organisers of a major international HIV conference and a public seminar on HIV and criminal law held in the city earlier this week - stated heightening public awareness and dispelling fallacies associated with the condition must be a priority.

She recalled a case in 2009 in which a Tralee man killed another man because he thought he was HIV Positive.

“This man suspected the other of being HIV positive. This kind of suspicion can cause a violent reaction. People are afraid to admit they are HIV positive or to come to events about the condition because of public perceptions about the infection. The way forward is to address this stigma by raising public awareness. A lot of attitudes are based on ignorance, such as the perception of how you can get infected.

“There is a tendency to blame people who are HIV positive for being HIV positive, people assume it’s something wrong they’ve done. It’s like as if it’s their own fault. That’s not fair. Often those who are affected are already from marginalised sectors, such as drug users, homosexuals, poorer people, sex workers.”

She outlined the incidence of HIV has increased dramatically since 1999 and said it is important that people are aware of the issues surrounding this infectious disease.

While the rate among heterosexuals has decreased there has been a dramatic rise among homosexuals. Complacency about sexual health in general, evidenced in the rapid increase in other sexually transmitted diseases, may be at the root of the problem, she believes.

The fact that HIV is no longer viewed as a life sentence may contribute to this complacency. However, human immunodeficiency virus is an incurable virus and people who have it will be on “long term very potent medication” for the rest of their lives, she explains.

Dr McCormack said that people infected with HIV who have, or are believed to have, put others at risk of acquiring the virus may be prosecuted in many countries, excluding Ireland. These include places in South America, Australia and the Nordic countries in Europe. Twenty-seven countries in Africa have HIV specific laws, for instance. Some of the laws are very vague while others are specific, she outlined.

“Non disclosure in some countries is enough to get you prosecuted. You can be prosecuted even if transmission has not occured. There seems to be some disagreement among scientists re how data is interpreted. What needs to be done is use science in a better way to inform criminal law. Science is only good if it is used correctly.”

The intrusion by the law into the lives of HIV-positive individuals in addition to issues regarding confidentiality, discriminatory treatment of certain individuals, and regarding HIV and sex education in schools is a major concern for many people involved in HIV prevention and treatment, as well as those who provide support for HIV-positive people.

She said both the international conference on HIV dynamics and evolution and the seminar were organised to bridge the gap between science and the public in this important area.

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