I’ve written before about the high cost of stigmas surrounding HIV and AIDS. These stigmas create misinformation and fear, leading to laws criminalizing HIV and discrimination against people with HIV.
Yet, campaigns to prevent the spread of HIV sometimes latch onto fear tactics and talk about HIV in a way that is harmful and offensive. At the top of that list is the “It’s Never Just HIV” campaign, launched by the New York City Department of Health.
The “It’s Never Just HIV” campaign warns that if you get HIV, you’re more likely to get osteoporosis, dementia, and anal cancer. In a press release about the campaign, the Department of Health said the campaign is “an effort to combat complacency about HIV” and to encourage men who have sex with men to use protection to avoid spreading HIV. But the campaign doesn’t focus on encouraging condom use or telling people to get tested; instead, it uses graphic imagery to instill fear. It sends the message that life is hopeless for those who are HIV-positive, and that HIV-positive people can’t lead happy lives even if they take medications.
Stopping the spread of HIV is certainly important but it doesn’t justify the campaign’s tactics. The campaign may potentially decrease the likelihood that men who have sex with men will get tested for HIV, and it undoubtedly stigmatizes those living with HIV. Considering the many recent suicides of LGBT people, you would think the Department of Health would consider how unhealthy it is to push a message that will harm people’s mental health, and possibly, lead to more suicides. Aside from the increased rate of suicide among LGBT people, HIV-positive people experience higher rates of suicide than those without HIV. The campaign is targeting the very individuals that are already at high risk for depression and suicide, as well as bullying and harassment.
Natalie Wittlin, Project Coordinator at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, is working to put a stop to the campaign. In a recent article, Wittlin wrote, “For many LGBTQ and HIV advocates, the campaign seems to be a reversal of thirty years of work to decrease stigma associated with HIV.”
Photo credit: QueensLatino