Anti-Stigma Message the Focus of World AIDS Day 2003

For Immediate Release: November 25, 2003

Contact: Rod Copeland, PhD
HIV/AIDS Program Director

BURLINGTON, VT—December 1, 2003, marks the 16th annual World AIDS Day, coordinated by UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS. This year’s campaign is aimed at addressing AIDS related stigma and discrimination that present major obstacles to effective HIV prevention and care world-wide, according to UNAIDS.

“Although HIV infection in Vermont pales in comparison to the global epidemic,” says Rod Copeland, Ph.D., HIV Program Director for the Vermont Health Department, “AIDS related stigma is fairly universal.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “AIDS-related stigma refers to prejudice and discrimination directed at people perceived to have AIDS or HIV and the individuals, groups and communities with which they are associated.” “Stigma associated with HIV/AIDS continues to profoundly affect prevention efforts, leading people to deny risk … avoid testing … delay treatment … and suffer needlessly,” according to the CDC.

Historically HIV has most impacted men who have sex with men and people who share needles to inject drugs. As the epidemic evolves and more people are becoming infected through heterosexual contact - these same obstacles continue to interfere with public health efforts. Such stigma hampers HIV prevention and care programs at all levels, from the individual at risk of infection to the broader community.

“Negative feelings toward people perceived to have HIV/AIDS, or believed to be from the groups historically affected, impact our ability to help all Vermonters both avoid HIV infection and get the best care for HIV/AIDS,” says Dr. Paul Jarris, Vermont Health Commissioner. “Every person deserves access to the resources that protect their health,” continues Dr. Jarris.

“Stigma is often grounded in a lack of information,” says Copeland. “Clear, concise information delivered in a nonjudgmental way is a first step in protecting the health of all Vermonters.” According to Copeland, “Some people might think they can get HIV through casual contact, or by breathing the same air—this is completely false. You have to do some pretty specific things to contract HIV.”

HIV is primarily spread in following ways: through sex, by sharing needles or syringes, and during pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding from mother to child. It is not spread through everyday casual contact. Some people at increased risk include those who share needles and their sex partners, sex partners of people with HIV and people with multiple sex partners. The Vermont Department of Health has an in-state toll-free HIV/AIDS hotline where callers can get accurate, non-judgmental information.

“People can also call our Hotline to find out about Vermont’s HIV antibody counseling and testing system,” says Copeland. “There are 41 sites located at clinics and community organizations across Vermont where people can be tested anonymously - no name or address is given,” according to Copeland. “When people use a state-approved HIV testing site, they also receive valuable pre- and post-test counseling from certified service providers.”

To learn more about HIV/AIDS, to find out about HIV antibody testing or to find out what community organizations are working to address HIV/AIDS stigma call toll-free from within Vermont: 800-882-AIDS (800-882-2437) or 802-863-7245. For TTY access dial 863-7235 or 800-319-3141.