How Is HIV/AIDS A Social Problem?

September 01, 2015 | 4 Minute Read

Over the last two decades, HIV has materialized from an unknown virus, to a pandemic of prodigious proportions. Social issues increase the risk of HIV infection rather than its prevention, thereby creating a counterproductive environment, where combatting the global epidemic effectively is hampered. To date, millions worldwide have succumbed to the virus, and nearly 40 million people are currently living with HIV.

Before the numbers decline, more must be done to address social intolerance and discrimination associated with HIV/AIDS so that those in need of treatment and access to prevention programs are reached. A misinterpretation of the facts and widespread stigmatizing has made this a pressing social problem, especially among principal affected populations.

Key Affected Populations

Members of key affected populations are those who are more vulnerable to HIV infection due to high-risk behaviors or because they are marginalized by society and fearful of seeking HIV services. The implementation of prevention strategies targeting these groups with applicable information and resources is an effective response, but these communities are often disenfranchised, so programs are limited or unsupported.

Though key populations are at the highest risk of contracting and transmitting HIV, they also have lessened access to prevention instruction and medical intervention because their conduct is often stigmatized and, in some sectors, even criminalized. Chief high-risk populations include:

Prostitutes Sex workers are at a greater risk of contracting and spreading the virus, but are generally more timid to seek treatment or prevention education, given the shame shrouding their career choice. Since condoms can be used as evidence in a case against them, some elect to not use prophylactics to safeguard against contracting HIV.

IV Drug Users Drug users are regularly denied access to harm reduction measures, and needle exchange programs are available in a limited number of areas. Few know that sharing needles is not the only behavior that puts users at risk. Sharing other injecting equipment, such as filters and water containers, can also transmit HIV.

Men Who Have Sex with Men Homosexual acts are illegal in more than a third of all countries, preventing gay males from accessing quality HIV services or causing them to be less likely to obtain and use condoms. Even in areas without such archaic laws, some medical professionals are fast to disregard the gay community’s distinct needs, making them uneasy about scheduling routine examinations and STD testing.

Transgender People The transgender community often lacks access to tailored HIV services due to the stigma associated with their gender identity. Sexual health care for transgender individuals is routinely insufficient, as medical professionals fail to address the distinct needs of transgender women and instead categorize them as men who have sex with men.

Prisoners Incarceration increases HIV susceptibility, especially when inmates engage in high-risk behaviors such as unprotected homosexual sex and IV drug use.

The People Living with HIV Stigma Index has stated that approximately 1 in every 8 people living with HIV is denied health services because of bias. Such individuals are often apprehensive about disclosing their status and worry about losing employment or being denied fundamental rights by public institutions.

Why HIV/AIDS Stigma Exists

When the HIV epidemic was emerging in the 1980s, it was defined by a response of public panic, and that backlash largely persists today, despite efforts to arm the populace with factual data. While a lack of understanding about the virus bred a fear of contagion, today much more is known about how the disease is spread. Unfortunately, some of the initial reactions prevail and foster many in the general population to be ambivalent about how HIV affects society as a whole. HIV/AIDS is still commonly associated with death, despite the great strides in the treatment protocols for HIV patients.

A significant percentage of the heterosexual community deems the risk of HIV/AIDS to only be prevalent among males having homosexual sex. Too often, those diagnosed are led to believe they deserve their illness since they have engaged in a behavior deemed inherently wrong or taboo. By placing blame on a marginalized population, simply because they are different, people falsely remove themselves from any risk and fail to confront the epidemic for what it really is. Denial thwarts an open dialogue about the pandemic and hinders preventative measures across all populations.

What Can Be Done

The rights of infected persons must be protected so they seek treatment early and do not fear getting tested. The implications are manifold when medical care is not sought until symptoms of AIDS-related illness persist. Anti-retroviral treatment is most effective when started early, but far too many HIV positive people delay addressing their symptoms. More importantly, those who neglect to obtain prompt medical intervention potentially put others at risk or fail to properly plan for their family’s economic future, in the event of an untimely death.

AIDS is in no way an ordinary epidemic due to the profound social and cultural ramifications and misplaced condemnation. The seriousness of HIV/AIDS is downplayed when the false belief that it only impacts certain groups remains a prevalent conviction. Key affected populations are not the only groups contracting HIV/AIDS, and until a broader acceptance and understanding is adopted, universal awareness and personal responsibility are lacking.