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Dealing with Discrimination When You Have HIV

We've come a long way in our understanding of HIV and AIDS. But there is still discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. Advances in research have made it possible to live with the disease, as people do with other long-term (chronic) illnesses. But the greatest challenge for many people is still the stigma that goes along with the illness.

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You may worry about what others will think about your diagnosis. Or you may fear coming out as gay or bisexual, or as an IV (intravenous) drug user. These worries and fears can encourage behaviors that put you and others at risk. These behaviors include:

  • Not getting tested for HIV

  • Not using condoms

  • Hiding an HIV-positive status from sex partners

  • Avoiding medical care that can save or prolong your life

  • Not taking medicine as directed

  • Hiding health problems from your family

The burden of AIDS is much higher among African-Americans. Homophobia and fear of people with HIV/AIDS are particularly strong in the African-American community. These fears mean that many people are afraid to acknowledge their sexual orientation or HIV-positive status. For these reasons, many prefer to risk infection rather than face the stigma of HIV/AIDS.

The reality of discrimination

Experts warn that a fear of addicts (“addict phobia”) has added to discrimination against people who were infected with HIV through IV drug use. "Addict phobia" refers to negative beliefs and false ideas about people who use illegal drugs. These negative beliefs include the idea that addiction is a moral failing. And the idea that addicts can’t or won’t change. These prejudices have slowed the availability of treatment centers for people who abuse drugs. As a result, people who are HIV-positive, African-American, and use IV drugs often face 3 stigmas. This heavy burden can increase isolation, anxiety, distress, and depression among those who are HIV-positive.

More Information About HIV from Johns Hopkins Medicine

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HIV and AIDS Timeline

From the bleakest early days of the epidemic, Johns Hopkins has been a leader in understanding, treating and preventing HIV and AIDS. Explore 35 years of progress, here and around the world, including the nation’s first HIV-positive to HIV-positive organ transplants, performed at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in 2016.

View the timeline.

Taking action to overcome discrimination

You have many ways to take action to reduce the stigma and discrimination you may be facing:

  • Educate yourself and others. Discrimination against people with HIV is often rooted in a lack of understanding about the virus and how it spreads. Contact your local public health department to find community-based organizations that provide HIV/AIDS information, counseling, and testing.

  • Know your rights. Federal law protects people with disabilities, including those with HIV infection, from discrimination. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Fair Housing Act protect your rights in the workplace, in housing, and in other settings. For example, the ADA requires employers to accommodate the needs of workers with disabilities such as HIV/AID, as long as they can still do the required tasks of their job.

  • Become an advocate. One of the best ways to fight discrimination is to work to help change policies that prevent people with HIV from getting the care, housing, and respect they need.

  • Consider being open with those you can trust. You can choose who to tell about your HIV status. Not all of your friends and loved ones have to know. You need to think about who can give you the support and comfort you deserve. It may be stressful to talk about your HIV status. But being able to confide in people you trust and getting the support you deserve will be a big relief. It's also good to remember that you can't control other people's prejudices. Prepare for possible negative reactions, at least at first.

  • Seek support. Studies show that people with strong social support are less likely to feel stigmatized than those who are isolated. If you're uncomfortable seeking comfort from friends and family, contact your local public health department. They can help you find HIV support groups in your community. If you already have a close network, think about volunteering to give support to others with HIV.

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