How bad science created a stigma that has been hard to shake off

Around 35 years have passed since the beginning of the HIV pandemic; time enough for a generation to grow up without having experienced the crisis firsthand. Yet while scientists have conquered other pathogens, stamping them out with vaccines and cures, HIV is still standing. So where exactly do we stand with regards to this issue?

While the medical field remains without any reproducible cure, medication is readily available to ensure HIV sufferers are able to carry out their lives as normal. On the technological side of things, researchers at Columbia University have recently created a dongle that attaches to your smartphone, allowing you to create your very own HIV testing lab.

But what is perhaps most important of all is that HIV/AIDS-related stigma continues to breathe, where it should have died out years ago. We, more than any other generation that preceded us, are immersed in a world of knowledge, and yet false beliefs and other nuggets of pseudoscience continue to litter our brains.

A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) showed a significant gap between the opinions of the American public and scientists, particularly on topics such as human evolution and genetically modified foods. 50% of surveyed U.S. adults didn’t believe that human activity is a major component in climate change. A significant 84% of scientists believed the public’s limited knowledge of science to be a major problem. But why is this important, and what does it have to do with the AIDS crisis that first swept the world back in the 1980’s?

Partly, it matters because a significant portion of HIV/AIDS-related stigma could have been averted had the public been more aware of scientific findings. When the symptoms of AIDS were first discovered, assumptions spread rapidly due to a simple lack of knowledge on all sides. Scientists had no idea how it was being transmitted. Conclusions were drawn based on the fact that gay men seemed to be the only ones affected. Before the term AIDS was given to describe the spreading infection, scientists named it GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency).

What matters is that the stigma held strong even after scientists had confirmed methods of transmission to be limited to the exchange of bodily fluids, identified HIV as the cause of AIDS, and confirmed that anyone could contract it. AIDS sufferers were evicted by their landlords. Gay men were accused of being the origin and cause of AIDS. A large degree of AIDS sufferers were isolated, physically and socially, in a form of discrimination that grew to encompass those accused of homosexuality, drug use or prostitution. The AIDS stigma was an epidemic that rivalled the viral epidemic itself, significantly stunting progress towards containment.  Some who believed they had AIDS would be reluctant to seek diagnosis or treatment for fear of rejection.

The fact that AIDS is still being mentioned alongside the LGBT community is an issue itself, but with gay men still not able to give blood in the UK (within one year of having sex with another man with or without a condom), it still an issue worth looking at.

It’s not all bad news though, efforts at educating the public have reduced the stigma regarding AIDS in recent years. Films such as The Normal Heart, which was released last year, aimed to increase public awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis, featuring leading cast from The Big Bang Theory and The Avengers. But myths and false beliefs still abound, especially in developing countries.

The ability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience is crucial, as the truths with which we surround ourselves serve to guide the decisions we make in life. We live in an era pervaded by knowledge and technology, and it is in such an environment that bad science thrives.

Jacelyn Hee


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