Stigma is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as: a set of negative and unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something. In the more than four decades of the HIV Pandemic, the medical, scientific and communities most impacted by HIV have made incredible strides; moving us from what was once death sentence, to now a manageable chronic condition. That progress has been unequal across race, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status and geographic location due to several factors but one of the primary culprits remains from the earliest days of the HIV pandemic, HIV-related stigma.
Fueled by fear, ignorance, and poor messaging, it serves as a perfect vehicle to further perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia. In 2023, however, we still see stigma spoken about as an abstract issue as opposed to a root cause of a persistent pandemic.
When the idea for Zero HIV Stigma Day was brought to us at the International Association of Providers of AIDS Care (IAPAC) by NAZ (an HIV and Sexual Health Charity in London) to create a day of global action uniting government, communities, Non-governmental Organizations, and influential individuals we saw an opportunity to educate and activate not only the populations of individuals living with HIV, but the whole global community, as HIV-related stigma impacts us all. It keeps individuals from seeking testing, treatment, and prevention services. It affects interpersonal relationships. People living with HIV globally in many cases are not safe to disclose their status to loved ones for fear of rejection. It is perpetuated by institutional policies in many countries that will terminate workers due to their status. Additionally in many places, individuals can face prosecution for non-disclosure without actual transmission creating an additional layer of fear. The most insidious of all the manifestations of stigma is self, or internalized stigma. These outside messages of fear, rejection and harmful policies can often be ingested by individuals leading to isolation, mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety and falling out of care.
The inaugural year’s theme of Human First aimed to serve as a rally cry. In a world where hate is being legislated in substitution for good governance, where we see a constant dehumanization of communities most impacted by HIV it felt important to remind the world, but most importantly ourselves, that before we are people living with HIV we are Human First. It also inspired the short film of the same name allowing us to elevate the stories of six individuals personal and professional experiences with HIV stigma.
The global response to this year’s Zero HIV Stigma Day was overwhelming. I’m not sure I’ve fully processed how a little idea, mixed with some big dreams and a lot of hard work resulted in a Global Day of Action uniting communities, government, NGOs, and advocates to stand up to HIV stigma. While there were many lessons learned, I believe that July 21st, 2023, is the beginning of a movement.
I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who worked to make the day happen, IAPAC’s CEO Dr. José Zuniga, our global partners, the cast of Human First, those who participated all over the globe. This day is truly a love letter to every person living with HIV who deserves to be treated and seen as Human First.
Kalvin Pugh, IAPAC