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HIV stigma burdens Africans

18th March 2008

Social stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in five African countries is decreasing, a new study has found, but is still a burden both for people living with HIV and their carers.

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The study of HIV/AIDS patients in Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland and Tanzania showed that negative social attitudes were limiting care options for HIV patients, saying that the problem would not go away without a concerted strategy to address it.

Researchers in the five participating countries, together with colleagues from the University of California in San Francisco, designed a system to assess the perceived stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.

They used focus groups in urban and rural settings to monitor 1,444 people living with HIV and 1,388 nurses caring for HIV patients over a period of one year.

The study, published in the journal Qualitative Health Research, measured the degree of stigma associated with the disease at three points during the year.

It found an overall decrease in stigma, but at different rates and from different starting points.

Researchers said that people taking antiretroviral drugs were more vulnerable to stigma than those who did not, because their HIV status was more visible owing to frequent clinic visits.

Nurses treating HIV/AIDS patients were ostracised by other healthcare workers, for example by being left alone to eat in the canteen. They were also refused transport to visit HIV patients at home.

The discrimination suffered by nurses affected their job satisfaction, according to Priscilla Dlamini, a principal investigator on the study and nursing lecturer at the University of Swaziland.

Social discrimination and human rights violations have been linked by experts to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in a given society in an approach epitomised by late former UNAIDS chief Jonathan Mann since the late 1980s.

Researchers in the stigma study said its prevention should be regarded as an essential part of medical treatment. During the course of the study, they found that bringing together nurses and people living with HIV decreases the negative impact of stigmatisation.

Principal investigator Lucy Makoae from the National University of Lesotho said stigma called for a strategic plan and needed to be addressed by communities through frequent contact between different groups.

And Minrie Greef, of South Africa-based North-West University, said a combination of strategies was needed to create awareness of stigmatisation and to enable people to move beyond it.

 

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