Erasing HIV stigma in Hong Kong still has a way to go

Dick van der Tak says sensational media coverage only fans the flames

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 2:48am

A young doctor said to be HIV positive committed suicide in March. His death was splashed across the media, and the public reacted with fear and ignorance. Sadly, if we do not do our best to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV, there may be other, similar, tragedies in Hong Kong.

It is now almost 30 years since the first HIV case was diagnosed locally. In that time, a lot has changed, especially the development of HIV treatment. However, the stigma and discrimination towards people living with HIV remain. World Aids Day, on Saturday, is a chance for people in Hong Kong not only to remember those who have died, but also to show support and help eliminate the stigma.

From our experience, the biggest challenge is addressing this social stigma and discrimination from the general public, which directly affect the opportunities and well-being of people living with HIV. We invest our resources in providing public health education and awareness programmes that aim to create a more supportive society by eliminating misunderstandings.

Unfortunately, sensational coverage by an uneducated media, as was the case in March, only fans the flames of discrimination. This inhibits people from coming forward to find out their HIV status, and also creates barriers for those diagnosed with the disease to seek treatment or counselling. While, anecdotally, I believe there has been a change in attitudes towards HIV/Aids in Hong Kong, there are still worrying indicators that deep-set prejudice remains.

The Equal Opportunities Commission's 2010 survey on public attitudes towards people with a disability revealed evidence that the stigma towards people living with HIV remains in Hong Kong. While the figures were lower than they were in 1998, the report found that 20 per cent of respondents still disapproved of people with HIV/Aids in their workplace. A third of respondents showed "avoidance and repellence" towards such people, and 34 per cent did not want a person with HIV/Aids living in their neighbourhood. Their concern was primarily that these people would "cause danger or adverse effects" to others. This shows many misunderstandings still exist within the population - HIV is transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids.

Sadly, discrimination and stigmatisation also occur in our health and social services departments, as a person's HIV status has to be disclosed as part of the process of obtaining medical treatment or applying for social welfare. We have heard of people, once a doctor or nurse knows their HIV status, being made to wait several hours past the time of their original appointment so that they are the last patient to be seen. There have also been cases in which social workers publicly inquire into how a person with HIV became infected.

Aids Concern addresses the stigma through collaboration with the Hospital Authority and the Equal Opportunities Commission to promote equal treatment in the workplace. We also hold anti-stigma workshops at universities, targeting student doctors, nurses and social workers to enhance their understanding of HIV/Aids and people living with the virus.

Early diagnosis of HIV can increase the effectiveness of treatment. This week, as part of our World Aids Day activities, we are providing free, anonymous and confidential HIV antibody testing services for everyone at our health service centre.

Since Aids Concern was established 22 years ago, many attitudes in Hong Kong have changed, and yet a stigma towards people with HIV remains. We will never be able to achieve an Aids-free generation without eliminating this; a supportive environment encourages people to find out earlier whether they have the disease and, if they do, to get treatment without fear.

By wearing a red ribbon or dressing in red on World Aids Day, people can show their support for people with HIV, a commitment to stamping out the stigma attached, and to helping us in our goal towards an Aids-free generation.

Dick van der Tak is the acting chief executive of Aids Concern