HIV can be treated, but stigma kills

December 7, 2018 by Anne Littlewood, Duke University
HIV can be treated, but stigma kills
HIV/AIDS Diagnoses and Deaths in the US 1981-2007. Credit: CDC

Three decades ago, receiving an HIV diagnosis was comparable to being handed a death sentence. But today, this is no longer the case.

Advances in HIV research have led to treatments that can make the virus undetectable and untransmittable in less than six months, a fact that goes overlooked by many. Treatments today can make HIV entirely manageable for individuals.

However, thousands of Americans are still dying of HIV-related causes each year, regardless of the fact that HIV treatments are accessible and effective. So where is the disconnect coming from?

On the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke University hosted a series of events surrounding around this year's international theme: "Know Your Status."

One of these events was a panel discussion featuring three prominent HIV/AIDS advocates on campus, Dr. Mehri McKellar, Dr. Carolyn McAllaster, and Dr. Kent Weinhold, who answered questions regarding local policy and current research at Duke.

The reason HIV continues to spread and kill, Dr. McKellar explained, is less about accessibility, and more about stigma. Research has shown that stigma shame leads to poor health outcomes in HIV patients, and unfortunately, stigma shame is a huge problem in communities across the US.

Especially in the South, she said, there is very little funding for initiatives to reduce stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and people are suffering as a result.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP. Credit: NIAID

In 2016, the CDC reported that the South was responsible for 52 percent of all new HIV diagnoses and 47 percent of all HIV-related deaths in the US.

If people living with HIV don't feel supported by their community and comfortable in their environment, it makes it very difficult for them to obtain proper treatment. Dr. McKellar's patients have told her that they don't feel comfortable getting their medications locally because they know the local pharmacist, and they're ashamed to be picking up HIV medications from a familiar face.

In North Carolina, the law previously required HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status and use a condom with sexual partners, even if they had received treatment and could no longer transmit the virus. Violating this law resulted in prosecution and a prison sentence for many individuals, which only enforced the negative stigma surrounding HIV. Earlier this year, Dr. McAllaster helped efforts to create and pass a new version of the law, which will make life a lot easier for people living with HIV in North Carolina.

So what is Duke doing to help the cause? Well, In 2005, Duke opened the Center for AIDS Research (also known as CFAR), which is now directed by Dr. Kent Weinhold. In the last decade, they have focused their efforts mainly on improving the efficacy of the HIV vaccine. The search for a successful vaccine has been long and frustrating for CFAR and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, but Dr. Weinhold is optimistic that they will be able to reach the realistic goal of 60 percent effectiveness in the future, although he shied away from predicting any sort of timeline for this outcome.

Duke also opened a PrEP Clinic in 2016 to provide preventative treatment for individuals who might be at risk of getting HIV. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, and it is a medication that is taken before exposure to HIV to prevent transmission of the virus. Put into widespread use, this treatment is another way to reduce negative HIV stigma.

The problem persists, however, that the people who most need PrEP aren't getting it. The group that has the highest incidence of HIV is males who are young, black and gay. But the group most commonly receiving PrEP is older, white, gay men. Primary care doctors, especially in the South, often won't prescribe PrEP either. Not because they can't, but because they don't support it, or don't know enough about it.

And herein lies the problem, the panelists said: Discrimination and bias are often the results of inadequate education. The more educated people are about the truth of living with HIV, and the effectiveness of current treatments, the more empathetic they will be towards HIV-positive individuals.

There's no reason for the toxic shame that exists nationwide, and attitudes need to change. It's important for us to realize that in today's world, HIV can be treated, but kills.

Explore further: What you need to know about HIV/AIDS today

Related Stories

What you need to know about HIV/AIDS today

November 30, 2018
More than 60,000 Canadians and 37 million people worldwide are living with HIV. In the early days of HIV and AIDS, there was enormous fear and discrimination —to the extent that in British Columbia politicians debated ...

Research reveals AIDS stigma remains in Australia

December 3, 2018
As Australia marks World AIDS Day on Saturday 1 December, new research reveals the enduring challenge of tackling stigma surrounding HIV.

The perception of PrEP as an excuse for promiscuity

August 1, 2018
In 2012, the FDA approved the use of the drug emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate ('Truvada') as an HIV Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) to reduce the risk of HIV infection in the event of exposure. Taking daily PrEP ...

Stigma impairs cognition in men living with HIV

November 27, 2018
A new study has drawn a direct link between the amount of stigma men with HIV report experiencing and their scores on cognitive tests, measuring abilities such as memory and attention.

HIV prevention drug could be hindered by slow roll out

September 3, 2018
A promising new drug that almost entirely eliminates the risk of contracting HIV might fail to control the epidemic in New Zealand if not enough people are using it.

Research suggests stigma could inhibit access to HIV prevention drug

December 8, 2016
The first study to explore United Kingdom men's perceptions of PrEP – a new HIV prevention treatment – has found that their opinions are negatively influenced by social stigma. The article published in Cogent Medicine ...

Recommended for you

HIV vaccine protects non-human primates from infection

December 14, 2018
For more than 20 years, scientists at Scripps Research have chipped away at the challenges of designing an HIV vaccine. Now new research, published in Immunity, shows that their experimental vaccine strategy works in non-human ...

Roadmap reveals shortcut to recreate key HIV antibody for vaccines

December 11, 2018
HIV evades the body's immune defenses through a multitude of mutations, and antibodies produced by the host's immune system to fight HIV also follow convoluted evolutionary pathways that have been challenging to track.

Eliminating the latent reservoir of HIV

December 7, 2018
A new study suggests that a genetic switch that causes latent HIV inside cells to begin to replicate can be manipulated to completely eradicate the virus from the human body. Cells harboring latent HIV are "invisible" to ...

New research highlights why HIV-infected patients suffer higher rates of cancer

December 5, 2018
AIDS patients suffer higher rates of cancer because they have fewer T-cells in their bodies to fight disease. But new research examines why HIV-infected patients have higher rates of cancer—among the leading causes of death ...

Focus on resistance to HIV offers insight into how to fight the virus

November 30, 2018
Of the 40 million people around the world infected with HIV, less than one per cent have immune systems strong enough to suppress the virus for extended periods of time. These special immune systems are known as "elite controllers." ...

Patients with rare natural ability to suppress HIV shed light on potential functional cure

November 27, 2018
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have identified two patients with HIV whose immune cells behave differently than others with the virus and actually appear to help control viral load even years after infection. Moreover, both ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.