Stigma the killer in AIDS fight

Da: del 21 maggio 2003
From correspondents in Geneva

THE International Red Cross and Red Crescent have hit out at some religious groups over their attitude to HIV/AIDS, saying they are helping to fuel the stigma surrounding the disease. “Each year, more and more people die from the disease and it is the stigma and misinformation around HIV that is killing people,” said Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“Faith-based and other prominent organisations” which actively condemned the use of condoms or singled out high risk groups “for blame and discrimination”, were hampering the fight against the disease, the Federation said in a statement issued today. Massimo Barra, of the Italian Red Cross, added: “These organisations are acting irresponsibly by providing misleading information about HIV/AI DS.”
About 42 million people have HIV/AIDS and 3.1 million died as a result of the disease last year, according to the United Nations. There were about five million new infections worldwide in 2002. The stigma, discrimination and marginalisation surrounding HIV/AIDS are the focus of World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, which is being marked with promotional events to dispel taboos under the slogan “The truth about AIDS. Pass it on”.

The Red Cross said people with HIVIAIDS might not know or be afraid to admit they had it, some governments refused to acknowledge its existence, cultural barriers and beliefs made the issue taboo and people living with AIDS could be actively discriminated against. All those issues contributed to the spread of the disease through unprotected sex, it said.

The Red Cross said its community workers were battling against misconceptions about the ways HIVIAIDS could be transmitted. “Some people think that they can become infected by mosquito bites, or by sharing the same toilet or even by working in the same office as people with HIV/AIDS, and that the only way to avoid this is to physically shun them,” Suarez del Toro said.

Bernard Gardiner, of the Federation’s HIV/AIDS program, told journalists that people must be able to be open about the disease, and many religious figures were in the forefront of constructive community action. But he warned that “faith-based messages get in the way of science”. “What we need are clear messages for people and one is that condoms work.

This message should not be muddied. “Stigma is learnt and stigma kills.” Gardiner pointed to the example of Swaziland, where about 40 per cent of the population has HIV/AIDS. “It is surprising in a country with a 40 per cent infection rate that no one there talks about the disease,” he said. He drew a parallel with the current focus on the outbreak of the deadly respiratory virus SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

Information about the new disease was flowing widely and people realised that anyone could be infected regardless of the community they were in, he noted. “We need to keep stigma down so people remain willing to act.”