Celebrity HIV disclosures whittle away at stigma

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    Jonathan Van Ness
    Jonathan Van Ness

    By Hugo Greenhalgh

    LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It was a photograph that went around the world.

    The image of Britain’s Princess Diana shaking hands with AIDS patients at a London hospital in 1987 was hailed as a milestone in the battle against the stigma surrounding people with the virus.

    Yet more than three decades later, despite recent moves by television star Jonathan Van Ness and former rugby international Gareth Thomas to come out as HIV-positive, HIV/AIDS campaigners and medical experts say the fight is far from won.

    “In the past decades, we have come a long way to challenge those stereotypes that stigmatise and discriminate against people living with HIV,” said Luisa Cabal, a director at UNAIDS.

    “Unfortunately, it is still pervasive, and those patterns of stigma and discrimination are reinforced through laws, policies and practices (around the world),” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    The announcements by Van Ness, star of the Netflix series “Queer Eye”, and former Wales rugby captain Thomas spurred news stories around the world, garnering support from fellow celebrities as well as members of the British royal family.

    Yet behind the headlines, the estimated 37 million people who live with HIV risk losing their jobs, partners and even their lives if they disclose their status, campaigners say.

    Knockbacks on dating apps are common, many users report, and occasionally disclosure can tip into violence.

    Over the past decade, there have been reports of HIV-positive people in Uganda, Australia and the United States being murdered after admitting their status to their partners.

    Thomas said he had decided to go public in the face of possible blackmail threats.

    According to the World Health Organization, since the epidemic took root in the 1980s, more than 75 million people have been infected with HIV. Thirty-two million have died of AIDS-related illnesses.

    However, in the West, the death toll and HIV transmission rates have fallen dramatically thanks to early testing, the introduction of effective medication and a daily pill called PrEP that cuts the risk of infection by as much as 99%.

    In September, Britain recorded its lowest rates of HIV diagnoses in nearly 20 years, having dropped by almost a third since 2015, according to Public Health England (PHE).

    The Australian state of New South Wales saw a 25% fall in new reported infections 12 months after the roll-out of PrEP.

    And in the US city of San Francisco, once the epicentre of the epidemic, the number of new cases has fallen by almost 60% over the past decade.

    Yet the public perception of HIV as a deadly virus remains, said Matthew Hodson, executive director of NAM, a British HIV/AIDS information charity.

    This is precisely why the impact of celebrities disclosing their HIV status should not be underestimated, he added.

    “What’s really exciting about the way that Gareth Thomas and Jonathan Van Ness have used their public platforms is that the way they talk about HIV has changed.

    “Gareth Thomas competed in an Ironman (triathlon) the day after his announcement, so he is far from the standard image of someone wasting away in a hospital bed,” Hodson added. – Reuters