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Did you know … in a recent survey, 21% of people asked said that they would no longer be friends with someone, if they found out that they had HIV/AIDS.

If one of your friends told you that they had HIV/AIDS, how would you respond? Would you distance yourself from them? In a survey that I commissioned towards the end of 2018, we learned that a shocking 21% of people asked, said that they would no longer be friends with someone, if they found out that they had HIV/AIDS.

We also asked if people understand the difference between AIDS and HIV. Nearly one fifth of the people surveyed still don’t know the difference. When we asked if people think that there a cure for HIV, 62% of the respondents said that they, wrongly, believe that there is a cure for HIV. What is going on here? Why is there still such a huge lack of understanding about HIV/AIDS? Why does it continue to carry such a stigma?

Read on to find out more about what we learned from this survey. You can access the full report on my website.

The Stigma is Still Alive and Kicking

I commissioned a survey of over 2000 people, to coincide with the 30th World AIDS Day on 1 December 2018, 30 years after the event was first marked. I wanted to gauge the level of current public perception and see if anything has changed. I was shocked and dismayed by the results of the survey. Why is there still so much misunderstanding that still surrounds HIV/AIDS? We have moved on and made huge strides with the diagnosis and treatment of HIV/AIDS since the 1980s and I believe that this should mean that discrimination against people living with the condition should be a thing of the past. And yet the survey shows that this is still far from the case. For the survey we spoke to people from all over the UK and from a full range of ages, genders and relationship statuses. They were asked a number of questions about HIV/AIDS, their understanding of it and their perception of people living with HIV/AIDS. The results make stark reading. There are three key areas that concern me the most and I will talk about the most important one here.

Are Millennials Shunning Friends with HIV/AIDS?

A shocking 21% of people said that they would no longer be friends with someone who has HIV/AIDS, or that they would distance themselves from them, if they found out that they were living with the condition. If someone told you that they have lung cancer or diabetes, would you act in the same way? It is highly likely that you wouldn’t, so why is HIV/AIDS different?

AIDS

I believe that there is a link between this answer and another question that was asked in the survey, related to how respondents believe people contract HIV. 40% said it was due to “irresponsible behaviour” or a promiscuous sex life. Does this mean that if a friend tells you that they have HIV/AIDS, you will no longer be friends with them, because you think that they live an irresponsible lifestyle? Most people aren’t as judgemental if you’re a heavy smoker and or if you had an unhealthy regime – and yet these are both irresponsible ways of behaving, which can lead to lung cancer or diabetes.

In addition, a huge 74% of respondents said that they are not worried about contracting HIV/AIDS from a friend. This seems to indicate that decisions to create distance from a friend with HIV/AIDS are more related to judgement than medical concerns.

Looking more closely at the different age groups surveyed, the largest response about distancing themselves from friends with HIV/AIDS came from those aged 25-34. 32% of people in this age group said that they would distance themselves from a friend with the condition; 22% of people in this age range said that they would no longer be friends with them. Compare this to just 10% in the next age range and it could be argued that those aged 25-34 are the most judgemental.

According to this survey, the 25-34 age group are also the most worried about being infected with HIV and the most concerned about coming into contact with someone with HIV/ AIDS. Could it be that Millennials are the least educated when it comes to HIV/AIDS? Is it that they don’t worry about educating themselves on HIV/AIDS unless someone tells them to?

Why are we seeing these results? It could be because Millennials were not exposed to the stark ‘life or death’ campaign from the 1980s, which started to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and educate us about how it could be contracted. Or it could be because they are more sexually active. If they believe that people with HIV/AIDS are behaving irresponsibly, could it be a self-reflection of their own current lifestyles?

Do we need to put more emphasis back on educating our young people? There has been no government run education campaign since the early days. In 2010 Norman Fowler commissioned the House of Lords Select Committee Report on HIV and AIDS in the UK. The recommendation was for the running of a new government-led campaign, based on education rather than on fear. The report states: “We recommend that the Department of Health undertake a new national HIV prevention campaign aimed at the general public. This will ensure that HIV prevention messages are accessible to all of the population. Discrimination against those affected by HIV is based, at best, on ignorance and, at worst, on prejudice, and we unreservedly condemn it. This underlines the need for a general public awareness campaign on HIV.” This recommendation was never carried out. Until this happens, how long will people be fearful of catching HIV, and know what to say to someone who has HIV/AIDS?

The two other areas of the survey that concern me relate to the question “Do you understand the difference between AIDS and HIV?” and “Is there a cure for HIV?” You can read the full report and see the responses to these questions here.

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