Eliminating HIV stigma: Have Kiwis’ attitudes changed enough?

In May this year, 1002 New Zealanders aged 18 and over took part in a Colmar Brunton survey which indicated New Zealanders attitudes and perceptions around HIV are changing – but there's room for improvement.

Public understanding of HIV and AIDS has come a long way since the first diagnosis of HIV in New Zealand, in 1984. However, the statistics from this year's survey revealed there are still some concerning misconceptions. For example, the survey showed:

  • 38 per cent of New Zealanders are uncomfortable having a flatmate living with HIV
     

  • 42 per cent of New Zealanders are uncomfortable with someone living with HIV preparing their food
     

  • 46 per cent of New Zealanders are uncomfortable with letting their child play with another child with HIV

None of these activities are a risk for HIV transmission.

Thanks to modern medicine, people living with HIV are now living long and healthy lives.

The New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) believes educating people about the truths of transmission risk will help ease the stigma New Zealanders living with HIV can experience.

HIV and AIDS are not the same thing. HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system and AIDS is the syndrome that can develop when the immune system can no longer fight off opportunistic infections and diseases.

There are only a few activities which put you at risk of HIV infection. HIV is not spread through shaking hands, hugging, kissing, toilet seats, door knobs, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or cigarettes.

In New Zealand, the most common way to contract HIV is from unprotected sexual intercourse.

Anal intercourse is riskier than vaginal, since the anus contains cells which are more vulnerable to HIV infection than the vagina. Also, the semen and anal mucous of an infected person both contain high proportions of HIV.

NZAF recommends several scientifically-proven methods to prevent sexual transmission

  • Condoms – HIV and other STIs are not transmissible through latex
     

  • Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) a daily pill taken by an HIV-negative person that protects from sexual transmission
     

  • Undetectable Viral Load (UVL) - If someone living with HIV has been on treatment and has suppressed the level of virus in their blood for more than six months, HIV is not transmitted to sexual partners

There are only a few activities which put you at risk of HIV infection. HIV is not spread through shaking hands, hugging, kissing, toilet seats, door knobs, dishes, drinking glasses, food, or cigarettes.

Other risk factors are intravenous drug use, childbirth, breastfeeding and blood donation, although the prevalence of needle exchanges, technology and medical screening in New Zealand has significantly lowered the risk of these transmission methods.

Thanks to modern medicine, people living with HIV are now living long and healthy lives. Though, there is not yet a cure for HIV but researchers continue to search.

The medicine is there, but the barriers created by stigma can cause isolation and a hesitance to engage with services.

When 88 per cent of New Zealanders say they would be uncomfortable having a sexual relationship with a person living with HIV, there is still a lot to learn.