HIV and AIDS

hiv virus

What is HIV?

HIV or human immunodeficiency virus is a disease that compromises the immune system, gradually leaving the victim defenceless against other diseases.  The virus attacks white blood cells called T-helpers or CD4s and replicates itself inside these.

Different strains of HIV exist and these can coexist in one infected individual.  HIV resides in bodily fluids such as semen, blood, vaginal and anal fluids, and breast milk.  Sweat or urine however are not carriers of the virus and therefore HIV cannot be transmitted through these bodily excretions.

A person can be infected with HIV through:

  • Vaginal and anal sex without condoms –The most common form of transmission from which 95% of cases in the UK in 2013 resulted.
  • Breastfeeding — Infected mothers pass the virus to their babies through breast milk.
  • Injections by contaminated needles or other equipment that pass through skin
  • Unprotected oral sex and sex toy sharing although the risks are very low with 1 in 5,000 chances of transmission

HIV is incurable but people who are diagnosed early on and get good medical treatment can live long lives with the disease.

As of 2014, about 103,700 cases have been diagnosed in the U.K.  About 60% of these cases fall within the age range of 35-54 and the remaining 40% are distributed among the young and senior group.  The highest incidence of HIV in the U.K. is among two groups: gay and bisexual men and black heterosexual men.  Sadly, there are perhaps numerous cases undiagnosed simply because of lack of knowledge.

It is easy to miss the onset of HIV because the early symptoms mimic those of the flu.  Symptoms such as joint pain, fever, sore throat, and body rash appear 2-6 weeks after contraction of the disease.  After this period, the symptoms disappear for years; that is why symptoms can be brushed aside as simply indicators of common influenza.

HIV can be asymptomatic for as long as ten years.  The infected person can actually feel healthy and well during this time period.  This is a major reason why there are numerous individuals who remain undiagnosed.  The asymptomatic period is dangerous because the afflicted person does not know that his immune system is gradually being damaged to the point where the body is left defenceless to all sorts of illnesses.  In the advanced stages of HIV, the patient may experience:

  • Weight losshiv uk stats
  • Recurring infections
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Swollen lymph glands
  • Dangerous and life-threatening diseases
  • Skin disorders such as red or purple blotches, rashes, etc.
  • Night sweats
  • Chronic diarrhoea
  • Sores in the mouth, genitals, and anus

What is AIDS?

AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome is an illness that attacks an HIV patient towards the last stage of the HIV infection when the immune system has been rendered helpless against the onslaught of various illnesses.  AIDS is therefore euphemistically known as advanced HIV infection or late-stage HIV.  Because an AIDS patient has no defence against disease, death can result from infections from other illnesses such as pneumonia, cancer, and tuberculosis.  Even mental illness such as depression and dementia can set in with AIDS.  Any sort of illness can invade the body at the AIDS point because the body has been left wide open to health invaders.

The Psychological Impact of HIV and AIDS

Despite the decreasing numbers fatalities because of adequate treatment and increased public awareness, HIV and AIDS remain highly stigmatised diseases.  An HIV diagnosis on the outset is highly traumatic as it not only means that one is harbouring an incurable and possibly fatal illness but it also means the likely possibility of becoming a social pariah.

The stigma of HIV and AIDS has left many feeling isolated and very lonely.  Fear of rejection from potential partners hound many HIV-positive people and these feelings are of especial concern to infected adolescents growing into adulthood.  Shame and embarrassment are also other factors that positively diagnosed individuals feel as the disease is still socially viewed as proof of immorality.  As a result, HIV patients have higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies.

Depression in itself causes physical problems with HIV patients.  Depressed people are less likely to stick to their medical treatments, a phenomenon lessening their chances of being able to live long, normal lives with the disease.

An HIV patient does not need to disclose their condition to just anyone; but he or she must have at least one supportive person they trust to talk to about their situation.  There are also organized HIV-support groups to touch base with other people afflicted with the same condition.  Talking to other HIV-positive people can dampen feelings of isolation and rejection.  In addition, professional support from a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker may greatly help your mental and emotional condition.

When an HIV patient’s mental and emotional health is addressed, their adherence to their anti-retroviral treatments, reduction of high risk behaviours, and their social engagements become remarkably improved.  Quality of life for an HIV-positive individual need not be severely compromised as long as he takes care of his physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Social Stigma

In order for society to function as a cohesive unit, adherence to established behaviour, mores, traditions, and values are, in many circumstances, a necessity. In more permissive cultures, a certain degree of individualism is permitted; but, in less permissive societies, deviations from the approved norms can spell stigmatization for persons branded as “different.”

 

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The Stigma of Being Different

People with definitive negative characteristics such as psychological issues, disturbing physical features, or strange ideas often do not think or behave the way the majority do. They naturally feel different and so apart from society. And rightly so. That same society from which these people crave empathy and belongingness ostracise abnormalities because these aberrant characteristics engender fear, annoyance, anger, or contempt. Hence, the ostracised carry with them the burden of a social stigma.

Stigma originates from a Greek word that meant an undesirable marking or brand incised or burned on the skin of slaves, prostitutes, and others of questionable character as a visible identification of their “polluted” or unclean natures.

A social stigma refers to “an attribute or characteristic of a person that is deeply discrediting. This attribute is devalued in a particular context and calls into question the full humanity of this person. Because of this negatively valued attribute, persons are devalued, spoiled, or flawed in the eyes of others… (Dr. Arjan Bos, OpenUniversiteitNederland).”

Because a stigma adds a significant negative value on an individual, this person may experience repeated shunning, rejection, scorn, insults, discrimination, and in extreme cases, even fatal harm. A stigma often lowers one’s quality of life by hacking away at self esteem and causing enormous psychological distress. People suffering under a social stigma are usually socially impaired. Victims of stigma often feel that they are not a whole person; some feel they never were one.

Children, ten years old or even younger, are often aware if they are stigmatised as they see that other people do not treat them the same way they do others. Often these kids have a sense of status loss and discrimination. Some may be stigmatised by their own family. Depending on the stigma, labelled children may grow into stigmatised adults who have to deal with consistent personal devaluation from social institutions such as school, justice system, corporations, and health care, to name a few.

For instance, obese people often earn the contempt of people in the normal weight and BMI range. Viewed as gluttons, very fat individuals are often the butt of jokes in the family, school, and in the workplace. In some countries, they may experience discrimination by services (ex. airlines, buffet restaurants) which regard obese people’s size and weight as equivalent to two persons and charge the unfortunate person, double as a result. Low-income Asians may also experience prejudice in a predominantly “white” culture which could regard them as inferior in aspects regarding physical appearance, intelligence, and educational level.

 

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Goffman’s Forms of Social Stigma

Famous sociologist, Erving Goffman, identified three forms of social stigma:

1. Physical Deformities — includes natal defects such as dwarfism; injuries such as burns and amputated limbs; obesity; physical abnormalities resulting from illness such as anorexia, leprosy, and polio; ugliness of face

2. Character Defects — includes mental illness; alcoholism; drug and other addictions; violence; severe introversion; suicidal tendencies; dishonesty; sexual deviancy

3. Group Undesirability — refers to any socially undesirable group which could be as small as a family unit to as large as a nation or continent. Gender, ethnicity, race, social class, educational level, religion, political affiliation, and career choice are some groups often subject to stigmatisation. As an example, the 911 tragedy in New York has unfortunately led many people to associate Middle Eastern ethnicity to terrorism, no matter the fallaciousness of such logic.

Coping Mechanisms of Stigmatised Individuals

Negative evaluations and their devastating effects on self-esteem often encourage stigmatised persons to protect themselves by:

• Hiding their flaws
• Withdrawing or limiting one’s social interaction
• Spearheading or joining a movement in a battle for normalising the stigma
Ex. MIND is an organization for England and Wales which aims to educate the nation’s public on mental illness. Its other objective is to empower people who suffer mental distress to make improvements in their lives.

Because some people choose to fight social stigma rather than just live with it, several societies, where the stigmatised voices are strong, often find themselves embracing the very aberrance they have formerly abhorred. Over time, these stigmas often become normalised enough to be integrated as the new norm .

Normalised Stigmas

The oxymoronic concept of a normalised stigma does exist. Some former social stigmas have slowly encroached the domain of what was considered normal and have somehow turned their negative values into acceptable norms. One such example is homosexuality. Shunned by the religious as sinful and by society as deviant, homosexuality in several Western nations now enjoys the same rights as heterosexuality with marriage and family laws increasingly growing in its favour.

Another example is the growing perception of smart yet socially awkward persons termed nerds as sexually desirable. Where some fifteen years ago attractive women would consider it social suicide to be seen dating a fumbling geek, today presents several visually odd pairings of bespectacled techies and lovely arm candies up and about town.

For a stigma to be erased, it has to be accepted by a large group of people. Acceptance is what it takes to make the abnormal, normal.