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“We heard stories of people with HIV being abandoned by family”
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“We heard stories of people with HIV being abandoned by family”

Many people around the world shy away from accessing HIV testing and treatment because they fear that if their status is known, they will be ostracized. Keresa Arnold, 25, a Commonwealth Correspondent from Kingston, Jamaica, recently helped produce two documentaries that dispel myths about HIV and Aids.

In a 2008 article in the Washington Times, United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon wrote: “Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action. It is a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so.”

The article highlighted the challenges faced when responding to the spread of HIV. “It helps make Aids the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions. Stigma is a chief reason why the Aids epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world,” he said.

This issue of stigma and discrimination and the impact on HIV prevention was one of the most profound messages I took from the HIV Awareness and the Caribbean Diaspora Project organized by the Interagency Coalition on Aids and Development, the Caribbean Vulnerable Communities Coalition, the Somerset West Community Health Centre and the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/Aids in Ontario. The project was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency.

My involvement in this project has resulted in significant friendships, important life lessons and had a lasting impact on my knowledge of HIV and Aids, underscoring my role in the process of reducing the epidemic and the associated stigma. Working with other youth from Jamaica and Canada to produce two documentaries−one highlighting how young persons respond to HIV and the other a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the first documentary−helped to put a lot of things into perspective. Since then, I have educated my peers, corrected misconceptions they had about the epidemic and hopefully helped to reduce stigma.

Throughout the process of filming and conducting interviews with persons living with HIV, those who care for them and also support workers, I realized the major challenges they faced and how public perceptions of the spread of HIV limited the response. Through ignorance and misinformation, many persons unfairly stigmatise others. HIV, they believe, is a contagious disease that can be spread through everyday contact. Because of this, many persons shy away from accessing HIV testing, treatment and care. They fear that if their status is known, they will be ostracized. These fears are not baseless as was highlighted in the documentary.

Through this project, we heard stories of people living with HIV who were abandoned by family and friends, chased out of their communities and their children teased and scorned at school. We empathized with people living with HIV who had lost their jobs, whose HIV status was disclosed by healthcare officials and whose HIV positive status made them consider whether to have children and enter into relationships. The reality is that stigma is a serious issue that has very serious negative effects on persons living with HIV. Whether it is on a policy level, from the general public or even internalized stigma, there is an obvious need for communication campaigns focusing on behaviour and social change.

Unless persons are able to openly disclose their status without fear of stigma and discrimination, HIV numbers will continue to increase as many shy away from getting tested.

The films produced by the youth participants of the HIV Awareness and the Caribbean Diaspora Project are available on ICAD’s website here.

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About me:

“I am a freelance journalist, public relations practitioner, social media enthusiast and blogger who believes in the power of communication in effecting social and political change. In 2007, I was nominated for a Prime Minister’s Youth Award for excellence in journalism.

“I strongly believe in the power of youth in bringing about significant change. To this end, it is crucial that countries that are serious about sustainable development will seek to engage youth in policy-making decisions.”

Read another of my articles here: “The issue of HIV/AIDS is one that has received significant attention since it was first discovered in the 1980s…”

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?

To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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