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Today is AIDS awareness day and I figured I should do my part and at least mention it. I have talked about mental health stigma before, and I feel like HIV is one of the diseases that still maintains just as much, if not more, stigma than a mental health problem diagnosis.

As someone who works in HIV prevention I figured it was something to be talked about. I have talked about HIV in children before, and that brought up a lot of the stigma associated with HIV.

One problem we seem to have is the assumption of HIV as a disease of “the Other,” be they the other in the form of “those poor people in Africa” or the other as in gay men or IV drug users. And yes, HIV occurs in all of these instances, but in thinking about it this way we are believing ourselves to be immune.

I have heard a friend talk about having unprotected sex, and explain that it was okay because he wasn’t gay nor had he used drugs and he was young and looked good. We seem to forget that HIV is a sexually transmitted disease, and HIV, like mental illness does not discriminate based on race, gender, or looks.

Our assumptions as to who gets HIV (ie, not us) leads to two big problems:

1. Stigma: the assumption that those who have it brought it on themselves by using drugs or other such “dirty” things.

2. Risk: by not thinking of ourselves as the “type” of person who can catch HIV we put ourselves in danger.

We need to stop perpetuating these damaging stereotypes and accept that HIV is anyone’s disease. A person can’t talk about a positive HIV status without being assumed to be either a drug user or gay (not that it bad to be gay, but we shouldn’t be assuming that based on a disease). The longer we perpetuate the stereotypes, the longer the stigma will remain.

The other huge problem is the danger that everyone else is putting themselves in. Straight women in their late teens and twenties are putting themselves at risk more and more. This group contains the highest numbers of STIs and has rising HIV levels. Why? Because most women are on some form of birth control. The main concern in this age range is pregnancy, not STIs. So long as we are protected from pregnancy we think we’re fine, but that is not the case. We all know that the pill does not protect against HIV but everyone assumes they won’t catch it because HIV is not “our” disease, it belongs to a “them”.

Intellectually we know that anyone can catch HIV but the association with it being a gay man’s or drug addict’s disease is so strong that it’s invaded our psyches leading to more stigmatization of those with the disease and increased sexual risk taking among those who do not belong to those groups.