Howard University will host the Fourth Annual HIV Stigma Conference Nov. 22, bringing together between 600 and 1,000 healthcare providers, public health officials, activists, students, faith leaders, people affected by HIV and experts from across the globe.

The daylong conference will seek to raise awareness of the social disgrace associated with HIV/AIDS and the devastating impact such judgment has on the disease’s victims and the broader society through poetry readings, inspirational music, dances, personal anecdotes, professional lectures, exhibits and more. The event will also be webcast and thus accessible to an international audience.

“Stigma robs individuals of their basic human rights and is the major reason why the HIV epidemic continues,” said Dr. Sohail Rana, conference director and professor of pediatrics at Howard University College of Medicine, in a statement.

“Anytime we look at people as being less worthy of compassion than others you have bad health outcomes,” Dr. Rana elaborated in an interview with the AFRO. “True healing comes from love.”

Stigma often causes people to avoid getting tested for HIV, seeking treatment and disclosing their status to others, which increases the incidence of the disease as well as its mortality rate, experts say.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.1 million people are living with HIV in the United States—African Americans, particularly gay and bisexual Black men, are disproportionately impacted—and 50,000 new infections occur every year. And, 1 in 5 of those who are infected are unaware of their HIV-positive status.

Among those who are aware of their status, stigma can often lead to depression, which can lead them to stop taking their medication and, eventually, to their death.

Dr. Rana shared the story of an HIV patient whom he treated since she was an infant. The bubbly, outgoing child descended into depression when she was 13, he said. Her family members would wipe the places where she sat, and reserved special dishes for her use; cousins stopped having sleepovers when they understood that she had HIV; and friends at school stopped hugging her, she told Dr. Rana. Eventually, she stopped taking her medication and she succumbed to the disease.

“She died of stigma,” Dr. Rana said.

Through the conference, the physician said they hoped to raise money for advocacy on this issue; teach community leaders and professionals effective intervention techniques to combat stigma and develop momentum to develop a Center for Human Rights at Howard.

But mostly, Dr. Rana said, he hoped the conference would help people realize the universal impact of HIV/AIDS and the shared responsibility for the stigma that exacerbates the impact of the disease.

“Ultimately, we are all responsible—it is the man and woman in the mirror,” Rana said and later added, “We must work together to eliminate stigma if we keep stigmatizing, ultimately, we will all pay the price.”

The conference will be held at Howard’s Blackburn Center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO