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The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and Policy          RISK PERCEPTION AND THE STIGMA OF HIV/AIDS:          ...
TuftScope    categories as dangerous based on their apparently inher-    tact:    ent risk for contracting the disease. Wh...
The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and PolicyCare Settings” differ from previously published guide-        f...
TuftScope     advantages afforded by routine testing, many people re-       or simply does not opt-out of the test, there ...
The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and PolicyReferences                                                  13....
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7.1 risk perception_and_the_stigma_of_hiv_and_aids_why_routine_testing_will_change


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7.1 risk perception_and_the_stigma_of_hiv_and_aids_why_routine_testing_will_change

  1. 1. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and Policy RISK PERCEPTION AND THE STIGMA OF HIV/AIDS: WHY ROUTINE TESTING WILL CHANGE HOW AMERICANS VIEW THE DISEASE by Vanessa Lynskeydisease, and the startling number of people who are unknowingly infected, the number of people who seek testing ontheir own is unacceptably low. As this low testing rate can be attributed in many instances to an incorrect assessmentnormalizing the process and bringing to light the common misperceptions about risk factors. As a result, routine test 1 Since first diagnosed nearly three decades ago, HIV, an estimated 40,000 people become infected withHIV/AIDS has received widespread attention both in the the virus annually, 4 for a combined U.S. prevalence ofmedia and the general public, with events such as the roughly 1 million cases. 3 Of these 1 million infected in-annual World AIDS Day designed to increase awarenessof the disease and ways in which it may be prevented. are unaware of their HIV status, 3 thus creating majorDespite the large emphasis placed on HIV prevention, personal and public health concerns as these individuals 5however, a recent study by the Centers for Disease Con- . Introl and Prevention (CDC) reported that approximately order to reduce this high level of transmission by un-50 percent of individuals between the ages of 15 and knowingly infected individuals, it is crucial that more44 had never been tested for HIV, 2 thus explaining why people undergo testing and become aware of their HIVsuch a large percentage of those infected (roughly one status early.quarter of the estimated 1 million infections 3) remain Lack of accurate knowledge about the trendsunaware of their HIV status. If HIV is such a widely of HIV in the population and the changing face of the demographic affected by the disease strongly influencestatus can prevent transmission and drastically improvethe length and quality of life, why do so few people seek population, HIV immediately became associated withtesting? homosexual males, as it was first diagnosed among The answer to this question lies tangled within members of this population. As more information be-the social history of the disease and the way in which came available about the disease, however, scientistsit was represented to the public upon first diagnosis. determined that in fact three main modes of transmis-A highly stigmatized disease from the outset, this has sion existed: “sexual contact with an infected person,created a host of misconceptions about the disease, and exposure to infected blood or blood products (mainlyhas consequently led people to miscalculate their own through needle-sharing among IV-drug users), and peri-level of risk of contraction. When people feel that they natal transmission from an infected woman to her fetusdo not fall into one of the groups typically affected by or infant.” 7 These three defined modes of transmission,HIV, they fail to view themselves as vulnerable to it along with summary statistics of those initially infectedand hence do not get tested. For this reason, the intro- with the disease, quickly led to the development of riskduction of routine testing will significantly alter the - tians, hemophiliacs, and heroin addicts. 8susceptibility to it, by elucidating the true patterns of though intended to define generic risk categories basedthe disease and shifting the focus away from only those on actual incidence data, actually played a major rolegroups of people most commonly associated with HIV. in producing the stigma associated with HIV. Although only a minority of people from each of these groupsA Changing Demographic was infected with HIV, their distinction as “risk factors” Twenty-five years after the first diagnosis of led people to falsely stereotype anyone in each of these Volume 7, No. 1 Winter 2007-2008 7
  2. 2. TuftScope categories as dangerous based on their apparently inher- tact: ent risk for contracting the disease. While these catego- ries may have been a fairly accurate representation of 1. Five or more opposite sex partners the population of infected individuals at the time, they 2. Men having sex with other men quickly became insufficient descriptors of risk factors 3. Sex with an injecting drug user (IDU) as the demographic of those infected began to change. 4. Sex with an HIV-infected person 5. Exchange of sex for money or drugs Historical Trends In the years immediately following its diagno- 7. For females, sex with a man who has sex with a sis in the human population, HIV remained somewhat man 2 contained among the adult male homosexual popula- tion. The first reports by the CDC that linked certain This comprehensive set of risks reflects the changing opportunistic infections to the HIV virus found in a late demographic of those infected so as to allow people to more accurately assess their own risk of contracting men 25-49 years of age,” and furthermore, “ninety-four HIV. Unfortunately, these risk factors, used mainly as percent (95/101) of the men for whom sexual prefer- a tool for research and data purposes, are unknown to ence was known were homosexual or bisexual.” By a large percentage of the general population and there- 1988 this demographic had already begun to change fore people remain in the dark about their exposure sta- as the incidence began rising in females. However, a tus. Were everyone aware of these risks, however, there comparison between the 1988 statistics and those from would still be no guarantee that they would pay atten- 2005 tells much more, as it reveals how drastically the tion to the warnings and seek testing on their own. affected demographic has changed over the past twenty As the demographic affected by HIV/AIDS con- years (Table 1). This comparison reveals that although tinues to evolve, ignorance of the disease trends con- homosexual males and males in general do still account tinues to prevent individuals from accurately assessing for a significant fraction of HIV cases, the number of their own risk of contraction, thus leading to lower rates infected women and the number of infections attributed of testing and higher levels of incidence. In an effort to to heterosexual contact have increased dramatically. increase testing and detection rates, the CDC has re- cently released a report calling for the routine testing Table 1. Modes of Transmission of all individuals, regardless of their perceived risk sta- Demographic/ % of infections % of infection in tus. Through these revised testing practices, they aim to Mode of in 19887 20059 overcome risk perception barriers and break down the social stigma associated with HIV and HIV testing. Transmission Men who have The Goals and Procedures of Routine Testing sex with men With regards to adults and adolescents, the CDC (MSM) defines their objectives for routine testing as follows: Heterosexual contact “…to increase HIV screening of patients, including Males - sons with unrecognized HIV infection and link them As a reflection of this demographic shift, new risk fac- tors have been defined that more thoroughly address perinatal transmission of HIV in the United States.” 10 the risky behaviors which have led to an increase in incidence outside of the initially affected populations. In order to achieve these objectives, the revision of current testing recommendations was crucial. The re- from homosexual contact, six newly defined categories outline current risks related to sexual behavior in the entitled “Revised Recommendations for HIV Testing of past year, only two of which deal with homosexual con- Adults, Adolescents, and Pregnant Women in Health-8 Volume 7, No. 1 Winter 2007-2008
  3. 3. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and PolicyCare Settings” differ from previously published guide- fore testing actually helps to perpetuate the stigma as-lines in the following ways: sociated with the disease by implying that something about HIV makes it more delicate and worthy of specialall health-care settings after the patient is notified that attention.testing will be performed unless the patient declines What about HIV makes it different from other(opt-out screening) infectious diseases? It can be prevented easily. Because contraction of HIV usually results from involvement inscreened for HIV at least annually. so-termed “risky activities”, those who contract HIV can be seen as irresponsible and even deserving of their condition as a result of their “reckless” behavior. In or-be considered sufficient to encompass consent for HIV der to eliminate this judgmental perception and avoidtesting. placing blame on infected individuals, HIV must be treated like other communicable diseases which do notwith HIV diagnostic testing or as part of HIV screening require pre-test counseling or written consent.programs in health-care settings. 10 to the evolving demographics of those affected, leav- The most notable change in these recommenda- ing many susceptible to contraction that would not nor-tions is that HIV screening would now adopt an opt-out mally recognize this vulnerability. Just as individuals - may miscalculate their own risk, so too can physiciansalize his or her own risk and actively seek out testing, miscalculate the risk of their patients. Physicians areor be referred for testing at the recommendation of aphysician, the HIV test would now become standard forall individuals seen in health-care settings. This routine he or she does not fit into the supposed “typical demo-process eliminates the potential for bias and human er- graphic” of an HIV patient. Although exposure to HIVror with regards to risk assessment. may have been associated with social factors such as race, class, and sexual orientation in the past, those tiesOvercoming Risk Perception and Breaking Down do not hold as strong now and therefore these social Stigma markers should no longer be given such heavy weight The fact that HIV testing guidelines differ fromthose of other medical tests provides evidence of the In addition to those who remain unaware of theirsocial stigma attached to it. Written consent and coun- risks, many people who do recognize their vulnerabilityseling are not required for blood tests that could reveal are unwilling to disclose this important information tocancer or for urine tests that could reveal kidney dis- their physicians 10, reflecting again the power of social stigma. The fact that individuals would go untested andcomponents of a thorough medical examination. How- therefore potentially untreated rather than disclose toever, when it comes to HIV, many people warn about their physicians their risk for HIV indicates that therethe dangers of eliminating such practices, as they fear still exists great fear of discrimination based on riskythat patients may not be as thoroughly prepared for a behaviors. While routine testing cannot address outsidepositive diagnosis. This logic seems faulty as patients discrimination resulting from a positive test, it will al-would likely find themselves equally unprepared for a low these individuals to receive the medical care theydiagnosis of cancer or kidney disease, and yet no debate need without having to “incriminate” themselves toexists about requiring counseling under these condi- their physician by requesting the test.tions. Especially because a diagnosis of HIV no longer For each of the aforementioned reasons andimplies imminent death thanks to advances in medicine certainly many more, routine testing will help to breakover the past two decades, pre-test counseling has much down the social stigma associated with HIV and HIVless to do with preparing someone for the medical re- testing.alities of a positive diagnosis than with preparing themfor the social realities of such an outcome. Ironically, Skepticism and Oppositionhowever, requiring counseling and written consent be- Despite the numerous personal and public health Volume 7, No. 1 Winter 2007-2008 9
  4. 4. TuftScope advantages afforded by routine testing, many people re- or simply does not opt-out of the test, there exists an main skeptical of the revised testing practices. Sources inherent risk of his or her medical status and sexual of concern include the elimination of pre-test counsel- history becoming public, and therefore this argument ing and the lack of sufficient resources to ensure that should not be taken into account in discussions of rou- treatment is available to all who test positive, as well as tine testing. People also worry that eliminating the need patient privacy rights and informed consent. 5, 11-15 for written consent could lead to some patients being Because the new recommendations eliminate tested without their consent or knowledge, “whether the currently mandated pre-test counseling, a fear exists due to vulnerability, lack of initiative, lax hospital pro- that people would be unprepared for a positive test re- cedures, or cultural differences.” 13 This concern is a sult and that they would not receive accurate knowledge valid one, and therefore it will be crucial for physicians - to thoroughly explain to their patients these new proce- ever, in their article “HIV Counseling and Testing: Less dures, especially during the first few years of their use. Targeting, More Testing”, Koo report that “there Media campaigns and the availability of more literature are no studies establishing the additive value of pretest regarding the topic could also help to inform the public counseling in counseling and testing services.” On the so that people are aware of the new practices and their contrary, making testing routine and involving every pa- rights with regards to refusing a test. tient in the screening process will open the door to more While these concerns do raise some interesting honest communication between physicians and patients. scenarios that deserve careful consideration, the bene- Such dialogue will allow doctors to discuss HIV and fits of routine testing are great enough that any potential HIV prevention with patients early, hopefully leading to sources of conflict can be dealt with and adjusted so as more widespread adoption of prevention strategies. to ensure that every patient receives optimal care. Lack of access to treatment is also a major Conclusions concern when it comes to HIV. According to Thomas While certain individuals and activists remain Coates, director of the Program in Global Health at skeptical of routine testing, this new process offers the University of California, Los Angeles, “The people enormous benefits not only with regards to individ- most likely to get HIV are the least likely to have ac- ual and public health but also in dealing with the so- cess to healthcare.” 5 Citing this claim as an argument against routine testing does not provide constructive so- Routine testing conquers stigma in a simple way: there lutions to overcome the various barriers to health care can be no stigma associated with testing if everyone is access. If people who lack sufficient resources test posi- being tested. When only certain individuals or groups tive for HIV, it is possible that they will be unable to regularly seek out testing, it becomes easy for society to associate these groups with the disease and discriminate test it is certain that they will not receive treatment. against them as a result. However, when there ceases A rise in the number of identified infections as a re- to be a division among “those who get tested and those sult of routine testing could even put pressure on the government and other private sources to allocate more there ceases to be a basis for exclusion or discrimina- funds for treatment of individuals who cannot afford it. tion. This latter distinction is especially irrelevant in Additionally, an increase in the number of early detec- light of recent trends, which indicate that while some tions should decrease the transmission rate as people individuals are decidedly more at risk than others, every will become aware of their need to take extra precau- sexually active or injection-drug-using individual faces tions. This would in effect reduce the amount of people a risk for contracting HIV, regardless of sexual orienta- needing treatment and therefore in the long run reduce tion. Therefore, routine testing represents a crucial step the amount of money being spent on HIV treatment. For in the process of breaking down the social stigma of this reason, all parties with a financial stake in the care HIV and HIV testing, and in effectively detecting and of HIV-infected individuals should support routine test- preventing the transmission of HIV in the population. ing. Issues of privacy, while a valid concern when dealing with HIV, do not differ when discussing opt- out or opt-in testing. Whether a person requests a test10 Volume 7, No. 1 Winter 2007-2008
  5. 5. The Interdisciplinary Journal of Health, Ethics, and PolicyReferences 13. Gostin, Lawrence O. “HIV Screening in Health Care1. Scott, J. Blake. Risky Rhetoric :AIDS and the Cultural Settings: Public Health and Civil Liberties in Conflict?”Practices of HIV Testing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Associa-University Press, 2003.2. Anderson, John E., William D. Mosher, and Anjani 14. Hollander, Dore. “Aids Testing Plan Stirs Contro-Chandra. Measuring HIV Risk in the U.S. Population versy.(Brief Article).” Perspectives on Sexual and Re- -vey of Family Growth. Vol. 377. U.S. Department of 15. “Plans to Expand AIDS Testing Alarm Activists.Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Con- (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome).” The AIDS3. Glynn, M., and P. Rhodes. “Estimated HIV Prevalence -in the United States at the End of 2003 (Abstract).” Na- ing: Less Targeting, More Testing.” American Journal oftional HIV Preventon Conference. Atlanta, Georgia,June 12-15, 2005.4. ---. CDC Media Facts: HIV and AIDS in the Unit- - -5. Reilly, Michael, and Andy Coghlan. “To Know Or Notto Know ... would Routine HIV Testing Help Stem theEpidemic, Or Spell Big Trouble for Vulnerable Individu-Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 30 (1981): 409.7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “AIDSand Human Immunodeficiency Virus Infection in theUnited States: 1988 Update.” Morbidity and MortalityWeekly Report 38 (1988a)8. Gallo, Robert C. “A Reflection on HIV/AIDS Research9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. HIV/AIDS Surveillance Report, 2005. Vol. 17. Atlanta, GA:U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Re-vised Recommendations for HIV Testing of Adults, Ado-lescents, and Pregnant Women in Health-Care Settings.”Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 55.RR-1411. “Winners and Losers: Routine HIV Testing is on theCards. Who Will it really Help?(Editorial).” New Scien-12. Opar, Alisa. “US Plan for Routine HIV TestingAlarms Privacy Advocates.” Nature medicine 12.8 Volume 7, No. 1 Winter 2007-2008 11