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Discrimination and HIV

Matilda Simmons
Monday, March 05, 2018

A NEW study has revealed the alarming stigma still faced by people living with HIV in the Pacific preventing them from accessing basic social services and health care.

As Fiji marked Zero Discrimination Day on Thursday, last week, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Fiji Network of People Living with HIV (FJN+) launched their recent report which gave valuable data on the real-lived experiences of people Living with HIV (PLHIV) in the hope of influencing Pacific governments to relook their policies and laws on the protection of PLHIV.

The People Living with HIV Stigma Index Study report was carried out in seven countries; Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu.

According to the Global AIDS Response Progress Reports produced by UNAIDS, a total of 181 cases were reported in 11 countries in the Pacific. Ninety-one (61 per cent) were men and 57 (39 per cent) were women.

At the moment, there are 69 PLHIV in the region (11 countries). More than half have since passed away because they lacked access to basic health, and discrimination.

In 2014, 13 new cases were diagnosed. While HIV rates were still very low, the report said sexually transmitted infections (STI) prevalence was still high showing risk behaviours and vulnerability to HIV.

It found that over 70 per cent of respondents reported feeling ashamed, guilty and low self esteem in the previous 12 months and 22 per cent felt suicidal.

Levels of self-stigma across the region were fairly high, this included emotions relating to self stigma where they excluded themselves socially, from health services, education and employment.

The study gave a heart-breaking insight into their lives as they described their personal experiences.

Many did not know about national laws which afforded them the legal protection of their rights.

Some were "detained, quarantined, isolated or segregated" while two respondents said they were "forced to submit to a medical or health procedure".

"I don't know but I don't like the hospital staff sometimes because I think they spread news about my status and sometimes I don't want to get my medicine because of the hospital staff," a respondent was quoted as saying in the report.

"When my son gets admitted, he is always isolated and branded (labelled) that he has a communicable disease. The ward assistant labels my son's utensils to ensure he does not share them."

According to Fiji Network of People Living with HIV (FJN+), which conducted the study, the study illuminated a number of problems that must be dealt with as part of efforts to strengthen HIV responses in Pacific Island countries.

"The reports of stigma and discrimination at health care settings are especially concerning, since this can have the effect of pushing people away from getting tested and seeking treatment, contributing to poorer health outcomes," said FJN+ board chair Emosi Ratini.

Country director at the UNAIDS Pacific Office, Renata Ram, said the discrimination PLHIV faced seriously undermined basic human rights, and this she said, should not be tolerated.

"Our HIV response needs to shift away from a disease focused approach to a people-centred approach," she said.

"In doing so if we want to end this HIV epidemic by 2030, we need to focus on basic human rights. If human rights are not protected, we cannot overcome this disease."

UNAIDS goodwill ambassador for the Pacific and former president of Fiji, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, said education, enlightening young minds about the issue should start in our classrooms. Sadly, Ratu Epeli said, this was not readily accepted by school authorities.

"Before this role as goodwill ambassador, I undertook going to all 179 of Fiji and Rotuma's secondary schools to talk to students about HIV/AIDS, it was not easy and not well received initially.

"There was still the view that the classroom was not the place to talk about sexual reproductive health and any talks that involved male to male relationships were borderline, frowned upon.

"Fiji, I believe, made a great initiative with one of the first HIV legislation in the Pacific but come 2018 this is under dire need of review and as the report suggested, discrimination at grassroots level is not best addressed with changes in legislation alone but also with inclusion of education and awareness from grassroots, schools from primary (schools) to tertiary (institutions) and within the workforce," Ratu Epeli said.

Some of the recommendations the report made include:

* Strengthening specific HIV policies and laws that safeguard the privacy, health and general wellness of PLHIV; and

* Educate people having children and looking after children living with HIV and establishing PLHIV peer support groups at the communal, national and regional levels to reflect and safeguard their interests including providing information, support and advocacy.

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