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Commentary By Dr. Sohail Rana: Addressing The Stigma Of HIV/AIDS

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Dr. Sohail Rana is a member of Howard University's Department of Pediatrics. As Washington, D.C., tries to reduce the incidence of HIV, Rana asks, "Is the stigma associated with HIV now worse than the disease itself?":

Angel died last Saturday. She was 18. I was her doctor since she was four.

She used to call me Dad.

Technically, Angel died of an AIDS-related illness. The truth is, Angel died from the stigma related to HIV.

Angel contracted the disease at birth from her mother. With today's medicine, she could have lived a long, productive life.

But many people, including her family members, made her feel dirty because of HIV. She felt rejected.

In shame, she refused to take her medication. Consequently, her HIV progressed to AIDS. The untreated AIDS led to her death.

Angel is one of approximately 100 children with HIV that I have treated since 1985. The shame and stigma of HIV prevents many with the infection from getting tested, seeking medical care, taking their medications and disclosing their diagnosis to loved ones.

There's much talk about prevention, but almost none about the stigma related to HIV. Unless we address that stigma, it is unlikely that prevention efforts will succeed.

In a recent Washington, D.C., survey, 30 percent said that they would not feel comfortable sitting next to someone with HIV in a bus, and 20 percent said they would not feel comfortable sending their child to a school where there is a student with HIV.

We have spent billions to find drugs to fight HIV during the past three decades of this pandemic, yet the numbers show the rate of new infections has not changed much.

As long as those at risk of HIV don't get tested, those infected don't take their medications or disclose their diagnosis to loved ones, HIV will continue to spread un-abated.

Stigma kills people and spreads HIV.

But there is hope. There's evidence that education and community-wide social marketing campaigns can decrease the stigma.

The Dec. 1 "International Conference on Stigma: The Attitude That Spreads HIV" at Howard University will bring together experts and community leaders.

Please come to the conference or watch it live at WhoCanYouTell.com. We are confident that conversation -- followed by public health efforts -- will go a long way toward decreasing the stigma associated with HIV.

What do you think? Join The Conversation and contribute to the Commentary Forum.

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