Social Effects of HIV & AIDS

Aids awareness ribbon pinned on to jeans
Close-up of a red HIV awareness ribbon. (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

For the more than 1 million Americans living with HIV, the social effects of this diagnosis can be distressing and disruptive. Infection with HIV can lead to AIDS, if left untreated. Prior to the introduction of combination antiviral therapy in the mid-1990s, an HIV diagnosis was more intimidating and life-threatening. With effective treatment, however, people with HIV can expect to live a near-normal lifespan, according to a study published in December 2013 in "PLoS One." With effective treatment, people with HIV often lack obvious symptoms but, unfortunately, may still experience negative social effects and unfair treatment.

Disclosing HIV Status

Despite increased HIV/AIDS awareness and the limited ways it is contracted, social isolation remains a reality for many with HIV. Fear of social stigmas makes disclosing one's HIV status to friends and family a concern for many with the infection. Determining when to share one's HIV status and whom to share it with can be a stressful decision due to fear of others' reactions. Based on a study published in "AIDS Patient Care and STDs" in March 2012, the disclosure process varies by individual experience. Some people found more comfort in sharing their status with a select group of individuals over keeping it to themselves.

Navigating Relationships

Some people mistakenly believe that HIV is spread through casual contact, or they make erroneous assumptions and judgments about people with HIV. Such misconceptions and judgments can make nurturing relationships difficult for people with HIV. "PLoS ONE" published a study in August 2013 in which 32 men and women with HIV reported reactions from family members and friends. While some family members panicked about their own health status, most were calm and supportive. Friends and future partners were reported to have shunned some of these men and women, but others found solace in their relationships. Whether their experiences had been positive or negative, many reported isolating themselves from others due to fear of being stigmatized.

Unequal Access to Needed Services

People with HIV are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act when one or more physical limitations are caused by their condition. This protection covers denial of employment, state or local government services, school admission or other public accommodations. Unfortunately, HIV discrimination still exists. Some people with HIV have been denied medical and dental services, consistent employment and adequate housing. Ongoing stigma can prevent a person with HIV from seeking needed medical and social services. Stigmatizing people with HIV in healthcare settings is particularly alienating and can lead to worsening health and well-being, note the authors of a September 2015 "BMC Public Health" review article.

International Travel Restrictions

The stigma related to HIV has few, if any, boundaries. The global database on HIV-related travel restrictions published by the International AIDS Society reports that as of December 2015, approximately 58 countries restrict travel to and/or the residency of people with HIV. Thirteen countries completely ban entry of people with HIV. Some countries even require on-the-spot HIV testing prior to entry. Reasons for these restrictions vary by country, but UNAIDS reports that the reasons given have been unsubstantiated and has called on governments to eliminate all travel and residency restrictions related to HIV status.

Finding Support

Living with HIV or AIDS can be distressing without positive social support. People living with this medical condition who experience discrimination might begin to feel hopeless, experience depression, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts or feelings of worthlessness. If you or someone you know is struggling with the social effects of HIV/AIDS, it's important to reach out for help. Seek immediate help if you have thoughts about harming yourself. There are many agencies available to provide ongoing support. Discussing your feelings with trusted family members, friends or a professional counselor can also be helpful.

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