Vesagas: The other side of HIV/AIDS stigma

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

“WHAT is a stigma to begin with?”

This is often the thought-provoking question I raise whenever I give lectures about the misconceptions regarding HIV/AIDS to my nursing and midwifery students.

Stigma, as defined by the Oxford dictionary, is the marked disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or a person.

According to American sociologist Erving Goffman, stigma is an undesirable or discrediting attribute that an individual possesses, thus reducing the individual’s status in the eyes of the society.

“Stigma can result from a particular characteristic, such as a physical deformity, or it can stem from negative attitudes toward the behavior of a group, such as homosexuals or prostitutes”, he states.

Simply put, Goffman explains that stigmatization is the societal labeling of an individual or group as different or deviant.

As such, the individual who is the recipient of stigmatization is alienated or is not treated the way the ‘normal’ typical person is.

Mostly, the treatment is something negative that includes discrimination, being ostracized or outcast that gives one an impression that stigmatization is a form of social punishment.

While stigma falls mainly a sociological or behavioral phenomenon, it extends to have significant effects on health behaviors.

Stigma related to public health has a long history to share.

For instance, leprosy, for many centuries ago was perceived as a form of moral punishment and that ‘lepers’ were excluded from civil and religious groups.

Another example was the case of those who had cholera.

Originally, it was thought that to be sick with this communicable hygiene-related disease meant that the infected person is lazy, full of vices and intemperate.

In the Philippines, for example, if an individual, especially male, develops a condition called ‘Stye eye’ or ‘bujinggit’ in the vernacular, which is actually an infection of the sebaceous glands at the base of the eye lashes causing a bump or swelling on the affected area around the eyelids, is thought to have been ‘peeping tom’ and is therefore being punished.

These are just some of the many cases of stigma affecting health. And HIV/AIDS is not exempted from among the many disease conditions that have stigma infesting them.

More particularly, the stigma experienced by known HIV/AIDS victims include but are not limited to being feared; discriminated; insulted; mocked; classified as immoral; and cut off from mainstream society.

These HIV/AIDS victims lose their friends as the latter narrow-mindedly fear for their lives.

To some extent, the victims are being refused medical, surgical and dental treatments for the false preventive and safety precautions staged by some health professionals, who supposedly are more knowledgeable.

They are also refused medical or health insurance by some companies as stated by their stigma-laden policies.

They painfully endure the negative and below-the-belt verbal attacks of the ignorant, misinformed and the judgmental mediocre crowd on a regular basis.

Worse, some have to wrestle with the heartbreaking reality of being outcast by their own family fearing that they could infect other members by sitting next to them; sharing kitchen utensils; or by the mere inhalation of their exhaled breaths.

In short, they are viewed like an incubus of infection that must be ostracized and isolated to keep them from spreading the infection.

They are like living in a huge invisible jail with stigma as the metallic bars that separate them from mainstream society.

I intend not to have a twistedly wicked sense of judgment, but believe it or not stigma is not totally maleficent. At least, not to those who choose to view it with a sociological eye.

You see, these stigmas possess what is called ‘social control function,’ just like all other disease conditions.

To control the behaviors of individuals, the consequences of living with HIV/AIDS are presented.

To elucidate further, no person in sane mind wants to experience the painful discrimination the way HIV/AIDS victims do.

Therefore, to prevent such, practice behaviors such as safe sex, no intravenous drug use and a monogamous relationship, to name a few, in order not to get HIV/AIDS.

In the absence of HIV/AIDS, no stigma will ever be experienced.

This is the very essence of social control.

But this is not to say that I am for the stigma.

I am merely presenting a road less taken proposition in understanding the dynamics of HIV/AIDS stigma.

The truth still prevails that with stigma, society is blinded in effectively eradicating HIV/AIDS from claiming lives.

Cagayan de Oro, for instance remains a hot spot of HIV/AIDS.

Although, it is still hoped that there would be zero Aids-related deaths, zero new infections and zero stigma and discrimination to become a reality.


Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on December 03, 2013.


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