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HIV/AIDS-linked Discrimination Continues Among Health Workers

Washington, DC, November 25, 2003 (PAHO)—The Pan American Health Organization reported that – despite some "ground for optimism" – HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination persists among health workers of many countries, including in the Americas.

HIV/AIDS-related stigma and discrimination "are as old as the epidemic itself," said PAHO in a comprehensive report issued this month. "Even in the health services . . . stigma and discrimination have been common."

Media images of the epidemic are now more positive and informative, and "a gradual shift in the attitudes of health workers are noted."

Some of that discrimination is driven by fear, ignorance and prejudice, the PAHO review indicated. "It is a complex problem where the true extent of discrimination and its impact on individuals and communities remains unknown."

The report is believed to be the first comprehensive study of the genesis, symptoms and impact of HIV-linked discrimination in the health services. The report will be launched on December 1, which is World AIDS Day.

"HIV/AIDS has become the biggest threat to human survival in the last 700 years. Important gains made in child health and life expectancy in the Americas are being threatened by this epidemic which is destroying many of the efforts and investments of the past decades," said PAHO Director Dr. Mirta Roses Periago in the report’s preface."

"A generally silent but harmful added effect of the epidemic is discrimination against people who live with the virus. Discrimination derives from the understandable fear of a virus that is transmissible, incurable and potentially deadly," Roses added.

However, it also has other deeply rooted causes, she said. "Among them is prejudice against those groups that were hardest hit during the early stages of the epidemic, such as men who have sex with men, sex workers and drug users."

The PAHO report said that in an ideal world, "prevention and care exist on a continuum whereby those at risk are encouraged to test for HIV infection . . . and those who are cared for are accepted by the community, creating an appropriate environment where those at risk are encourage to test for infection."

"In reality, however, stigma interrupts this continuum by discouraging individuals from testing for the virus, reducing the options for care and support, and limiting the input into prevention programs. The result is that both individuals and public health suffer."

The PAHO report noted that even though there is some evidence of growing acceptance of people with HIV/AIDS in the health services, "some groups still face high levels of discrimination. But whoever is affected, as long as the phenomenon persists, it will bring psychological and physical distress to the individuals affected and severely hampers HIV/AIDS prevention and care efforts in the community as a whole."

The PAHO report on discrimination and the health sector said that programs that tackle stigma and discrimination in the health services not only affect people living with HIV. Indeed, "well-designed and implemented programs also support health workers, reducing stress levels from fear, ignorance and prejudice, and enabling them to achieve a greater sense of satisfaction from caring for the men, women and children in their care."

"It is hoped that this review has contributed to that process," PAHO said.

Roses noted in her preface that health workers "need all the support we can give them for the difficult task of caring for people with HIV and AIDS."

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world’s oldest public health organization. PAHO works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and the quality of life of its people. It serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).

PAHO Member States today include all 35 countries in the Americas. France, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are Participating States. Portugal and Spain are Observer States, and Puerto Rico is an Associate Member.

For more information:

For more information, video material, or photographs please contact: Daniel Epstein, Area of Public Information, (202) 974-3459, e-mail: epsteind@paho.org, or Paulo Lyra, HIV/AIDS Unit, (202) 974-3937, e-email: lyrapau@paho.org.