Health and Healthcare Systems

How the media could help end HIV stigma


Prejudice against people with HIV is global, according to UNAIDS, a United Nations agency. Image: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

Douglas Broom
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  • Over half of citizens in some countries express prejudice against people with HIV.
  • A new study says the media has a key role to play in fighting the HIV stigma.
  • Showing people with HIV living healthy lives could reduce levels of prejudice.

Positive media portrayals of people living with HIV can have a powerful role in fighting stigma and prejudice, according to a new survey.

The 2021 State of HIV Stigma Study says prejudice could be reduced if the media featured more people living healthy lives with HIV. It also calls for greater public recognition of medical advances which mean people taking proper treatments pose no risk of infecting others.

“This research shows that there is an opportunity for stigma to be lessened by showing in the media those who are living and thriving,” the report says. “People living with HIV need to be represented across race, sexuality, and gender identity to feel empowered to tell their stories and speak truth to power.”

Although more people surveyed for the GLAAD report recalled seeing positive media coverage about people with HIV in the past 12 months – 56% in the 2021 study compared with 52% in 2020 – another survey by the organization found a “drastic decrease” in the number of characters with HIV in US primetime dramas over the same period.

56% of American's have seen stories about people living with HIV. Image: GLAAD

“People living with HIV continue to experience stigma, and stigma thrives in silence. Their stories must be told to show how people with HIV lead long and healthy lives, and cannot sexually transmit HIV when on proper treatment,” Sarah Kate Ellis, CEO of GLAAD, says in the report.

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Ignorance increasing

The 2021 study, which surveyed the views of more than 2,500 adults in the United States, marks the 40th year since the first AIDS cases were reported in the United States. Among its sobering conclusions is that ignorance about HIV stigma is growing, not decreasing, with time.

Over half of those surveyed said they would have concerns about being treated by a medical professional with HIV, with 44% saying the same about having their hair cut or styled by someone with HIV and 35% fearing contact with teachers living with the virus.

Only two-fifths of those surveyed knew that people on proper medication could not transmit HIV to others, although two thirds (64%) were aware that medications existed that protect against contracting HIV.

Ignorance about HIV is growing, not decreasing. Image: GLAAD

HIV stigma is global, according to UNAIDS, a United Nations agency. In 52 of 58 recently surveyed countries more than a quarter of people aged 15-49 held discriminatory attitudes towards people living with HIV. In 36 of those countries the figure was above 50%.

HIV stigma - Science ignored

“HIV/AIDS continues to be an epidemic with complex characteristics,” GLAAD’s Ellis says. “The spread is fueled and complicated by misinformation and lack of information about the remarkable progress science and medicine have made to make HIV not only preventable, but when treated properly, untransmittable.”


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GLAAD’s 2021 survey Where We Are on TV found that the HIV stigma was preventing more HIV-positive characters appearing in primetime dramas.

A global LGBTQ media advocacy organization, GLAAD was in 1985 formed to counter “grossly defamatory and sensationalized HIV and AIDS coverage,” and is committed to acceptance for all people living with HIV.

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