A new report on HIV-related stigma has found that the Irish public has a ‘notable level of sympathy and understanding towards those with HIV and AIDS’.

But before you start patting yourself on the back for your positive attitude, you should ask yourself, are you among the 23% of people who would be worried about eating a meal prepared by someone with HIV? Perhaps you are among the 15% who believe that those with HIV only have themselves to blame for their condition?

HIV Related Stigma and Discrimination in Ireland Today is the first national report on HIV related stigma and has been launched as part of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign, a collaborative process between Irish Aid, the Department of Health, people living with HIV and non-governmental organisations focused on HIV and sexual health.

Last year, there were 362 newly diagnosed cases of HIV reported in Ireland, an increase of 7% on the previous year’s figure of 337. Meanwhile 170 new cases have already been reported in the first six months of this year.

This new report combines the findings of three separate studies. The first was a telephone survey that targeted the general public about their attitudes to HIV in Ireland. The second was a telephone survey that targeted four workplace groupings – schools, unions, doctors and dentists, and small businesses. The final study was a self-completion survey filled out by people living with HIV.

According to the findings, there is undoubtedly stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV in Ireland today. However this occurs at different levels and to varying degrees across various sections of society, such as home life, work life and community life.

The perception that people with HIV are viewed negatively by society is higher among those living with the virus than among the general public.

In fact, 84% of people with HIV feel that people with the virus are viewed negatively by society. However just 54% of the general public agree with this. The public believes that as a minority group in society, those with HIV are the third most likely to suffer from societal discrimination, after drug users and members of the Travelling Community.

However while the report notes the ‘notable level of sympathy and understanding’ among the public towards those with HIV, it highlights the fact that 23% would be worried about eating a meal that had been prepared by someone with HIV while 37% would keep it a secret if they discovered a family member had contracted the virus.

Furthermore when it comes to those living with HIV, the report notes a number of startling facts in relation to discrimination. In fact, 49% of people living with HIV claim to have been discriminated against by their own friends and 28% by their own families.

A further 43% have been discriminated against by their local community, 25% by social welfare and 18% by school/college.

Most surprisingly, the report highlights ‘a considerable level of discrimination’ among the medical profession, with 37% of people with HIV claiming to have been discriminated against by a doctor and 34% by a dentist.

Furthermore in relation to hiring people with HIV, doctors and dentists expressed the highest level of concern among the workplaces studied, with 65% claiming that they would have concerns about hiring a HIV positive person.

The concerns expressed by all the workplaces tended to focus on the impact on the actual workplace and others rather than the impact on the individual with the virus. Of the four workplaces looked at, schools were the most sensitive to the individual with HIV.

Overall there appeared to be a low occurrence of staff with HIV although this perception was accompanied by uncertainty, with many people unsure of whether anyone had HIV in their workplace.

According to Ciaran McKinney, vice-chair of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign, while it is illegal to discriminate on the grounds of HIV status, ‘the studies clearly indicate that there is a need for information targeting the general public to help alleviate concerns and misconceptions’.

He said that a greater understanding of HIV is key to reducing stigma.

“The stigma uncovered in the studies clearly impacts on the health and wellbeing of those living with HIV. Critically that stigma also acts as a deterrent to people coming forward for HIV testing and is a key barrier to tackling HIV in Ireland,” he explained.

The report recommends that further research be carried out to understand the impact of HIV-related stigma and discrimination on those living with HIV. It also calls for the development of a national information strategy on the rights of people living with HIV. This would target those living with the virus and employers and service providers.

“Very little research has been carried out in Ireland in this area. The findings of this significant research will act as a benchmark for all further research into the experiences of HIV-related stigma and discrimination in this country,” added Noel Walsh, chair of the Stamp Out Stigma campaign.

For more information on this campaign, see…http://www.stampoutstigma.ie

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