In the early years of HIV/AIDS, getting a positive test or diagnosis was considered a death sentence. There were no effective medications or treatments. And, is still the case, no cure.

But over the last 20 years, parts of that picture have changed significantly. There are a variety of effective treatments available and those who test positive for HIV or receive a diagnosis of AIDS are no longer facing imminent death.

Yet there is still one thing that hasn’t changed: the social stigma associated with the disease. This, according to Dr. Sohail Rana, director of HIV Pediatric Services at Howard University Hospital, is a major reason why HIV/AIDS continues to cost so many lives.

“So we have come a long way,” he said on Washington, D.C. Fox affiliate WTTG on Nov. 30. “We have more than 20 medications that can probably completely control HIV for a very long time, probably indefinitely, if only we could take care of stigma to make people get the diagnosis, go to doctor, get their medication, and find the support in their family and friends and churches so they can go on with their lives.”

To address this issue and hopefully encourage people to seek the help they need, Howard University hosted the International Conference on HIV Stigma on World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

The event, free to the public, included speakers Robert Bailey II of the National Partnerships, Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, CDC; Dr. Rana; Dr. Rebecca Vargas-Jackson of the Center for Stigma at Howard University; Miss America 2011 Caressa Cameron and Vanessa Johnson from the National Women and AIDS Collective.

Among the event’s sessions were “What does HIV-related stigma look like?” and “Best practices in addressing and eradicating stigma.”

“Stigma is real,” Rana said in a press release. “There are 70 countries that won’t let you enter if you have HIV. These people are ridiculed. Imagine how different it is for them versus a patient with cancer, or heart disease, diabetes, people struggling with obesity.”

“We want to make people aware of how stigma really colors the life of an individual with HIV, and it makes all prevention efforts fail, because individuals feel uncomfortable revealing their diagnosis to anybody, even doctors,” Rana added. “We want people to make it possible for that friend, that family member to share without made to feel dirty and ashamed.”