Research shows HIV stigma still prevalent

One in five people who have HIV in Canada don’t know about their infection, and those who do may be reluctant to share their diagnoses because of the stigma that still exists.

Sociology and anthropology professor Linda Hunter examined 25 years’ worth of HIV awareness posters aimed at women, who account for one-quarter of the 75,000 adults living with HIV in Canada. Hunter looked at posters from 1990 to 2015 and found that poster campaigns generally reinforce stigma rather than promote communication.

Hunter’s study found that early posters reinforced the stigma around HIV by citing examples of how women with HIV were treated differently and were portrayed as being isolated.

One poster, produced in 2004, depicts a woman isolated from her peers with text stating that since her diagnosis, no one wanted to share anything with her, “not even the bathroom.” This type of fear-based messaging can lead to misinformation, stereotyping and stigma, says Hunter. A more effective approach, she adds, would be to portray HIV-positive women surrounded by friends and family.

She also points to a recent campaign by the Canadian AIDS Society in 2015 called HIVAnonymous. The word “anonymous” further stigmatizes people living with HIV, she says, as does the use of a faceless silhouette.

Hunter did find an exception to this trend. A 2013 anti-stigma poster campaign from Montreal features HIV-positive individuals talking about their lives and their contributions to their communities. The poster states, “It’s HIV that needs to be excluded, not the people living with it.”

She says reducing the stigma can help women feel more comfortable about seeking health care and talking about issues regarding sexuality, pregnancy and child care with health-care providers. Many women with HIV avoid accessing health services and support programs due to fear of judgment by health-care providers. –SUSAN BUBAK