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The importance of sociology in the fight against AIDS has been mentioned several times by prominent researchers. Macionis and Plummer wrote: “The social implications of AIDS are so many that it becomes almost a test case for the relevance of sociology to health” (2008).
Macionis and Plummer are correct in the sense that AIDS is a disease which infection rate is strongly correlated to interpersonal relationships, such as sexual intercourse, blood transfusion and intravenous drug use. Furthermore, in the beginning of its evolution, the disease was associated with homosexuals.
Therefore, there is a need to incorporate insights regarding interpersonal relationships when it comes to the design of prevention programs. AIDS is a perfect example of the close link between health and sociology.
Impact on Mankind
The importance of sociology in the study of AIDS is based on its unique attributes. There are many deadly forms of diseases that claim many lives. For instance, medical conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease claim hundreds of thousands of lives.
But AIDS/HIV is the only highly communicable disease that has no known cure and, at the same time, can infect a person without developing any type of symptoms. This characteristic is the primary reason why AIDS has reached crisis proportions in many parts of the globe.
Consider, for instance, social impact of the infected person engaging in sexual relations with wife and other people. The virus is passed on from one person to the next without their knowledge. A prostitute can unknowingly pass the disease to her clients before the virus ends her life.
The infected wife continues to bear children infected with the virus without the family’s knowledge of impending doom. There is, therefore, the need to access sophisticated medical intervention processes in order to detect HIV/AIDS. But in poor countries the lack of technology is just half of the problem. People are even unaware of what AIDS means.
The inability to combat AIDS at the early stage is a sociological problem because the lack of education and the lack of medical facilities enhance the power of the disease. Paul Farmer in his book Infections and Inequalities: the Modern Plagues lamented the fact that people die not because there is no means to fight the disease, but simply because they have no access to decent healthcare.
However, mankind must not succumb to despair. It would be best to follow the suggested course of action of a man who saw the collision of sociology and medical science and he said: “One learns, I would hope to discover what is right, what needs to be righted – through work, through action” (Farmer, 1999, p. 18).
The first step is to acknowledge that medical science must work in tandem with the social science to develop strategies to combat HIV/AIDS.
Highly Communicable Disease
The ability to stop the spread of the HIV virus should not be ignored by medical professionals. It is understandable that it is their primary duty to unlock the mystery of the AIDS virus; nevertheless, it is the job of social workers and social scientists to help people understand the disease on their own terms and through a language that they can comprehend.
For example, if the prevention strategy centres on abstaining from casual sex, than the social workers must be able to explain the logic behind the infection period. In other diseases, the infection period usually lasts for a short time, or a few months for some highly contagious diseases (Middleberg, 2003).
But in the case of HIV, the infectious period can last from 8 to 12 years (Middleberg, 2003). They have to understand the implication that HIV carriers can infect others during this time period without a clue that they have the virus.
The Stigma surrounding AIDS
Aside from the need to explain the unique attributes of the AIDS virus, sociology also plays a major role when it comes to coping with the disease. It has to be reiterated that the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS is rooted in its mode of transmission from one infected person to another human being.
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It may be a contagious disease, but a person sitting next to an HIV carrier does not get infected. Furthermore, scientists were able to determine that the virus cannot survive in the open air or in the water – it is not an airborne or a waterborne disease (Piot & Bartos, 2002).
It has been discovered that the virus is “primarily transmitted by blood and by direct contact of genital or rectal mucosa with infected semen or vaginal secretions” (Piot & Bartos, 2002, p.10).
There are other means of transmission but through the help of mainstream media what gets the attention of people are the two modes of transmissions: a) sexual intercourse and b) intravenous drug use.
This view is exacerbated by assertions made by researchers who asserted that HIV infection cases owing to blood and perinatal transmission are diminishing in the United States and, therefore, it sexual transmission that is the main reason behind the surge in infections (Piot & Bartos, 2002). This is one of the reasons why there is stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Principles, gleaned from the study of sociology, must be used to deal with the shame felt by HIV carriers, especially if they are homosexuals. The plight of gay people is made more difficult by recent studies claiming that “transmission probabilities for heterosexual couples to be between.0001 and.0020 per episode of sexual intercourse” (Piot & Bartos, 2002, p.10).
The implication is that there is a low risk of infection when it comes to heterosexual sexual activity. There is also a link between HIV infection and lesions due to other forms of sexually transmitted diseases.
But even before all that, the world came to know about the disease through the high rate of infections among members of the gay community many years ago (Dowsett, 2003). This information endures through the decades and makes it difficult to forget; therefore, for many people AIDS/HIV is associated with homosexuality (Dowsett, 2003).
Social scientists must help develop intervention strategies and disseminate information to help deal with misconceptions regarding HIV/AIDS. The stigma associated with the disease can prevent HIV carriers from seeking medical assistance.
If the community finds out that a person is infected with HIV, the first thing that comes to mind is the question whether the person is homosexual or not (Robinson, 2008). If the HIV positive person is male, than it is impossible to stop people from thinking about his sexual orientation and whether he had engaged in homosexual intercourse in the recent years, or if he led a promiscuous lifestyle.
Gay men are not the only group that requires help when it comes to dealing with the social impact of the disease. Heterosexuals are not immune to the stigma that follows HIV/AIDS. In their case, the challenge is on how to dissociate HIV/AIDS from the idea of multiple sex partners or prostitution.
They would be branded as promiscuous. If they can prove that they are faithful to their partners, the next thing that can be used against them is the accusation that they are drug users. The same effect can be expected, they would not seek help due to the stigma associated with the disease.
A Social Problem
In the third world countries, the sociological aspect of HIV/AIDS is much more complicated. Whereas in the Western world the issues are limited to social stigma, HIV carriers in poor countries like in Africa, have to deal with several problems associated with HIV/AIDS. The lack of information regarding the disease and the lack of access to decent healthcare has resulted in an AIDS epidemic (Gausset, 2001).
The impact of the disease has reached levels unknown in industrialised countries, for example, infants born in seven African nations – those with very high HIV infection – could not expect to live beyond 40 (Dugger, 2004, p.1).
Due to the shocking facts, some of Africa’s politicians are saying that the numbers may be inaccurate (Dugger, 2004, p.1). Nevertheless, the implication is unthinkable; the disease can wipe out communities as if ravaged by war.
Consider the repercussions, the deaths of thousands of young men and women meant that there were only a few people that can contribute to the field of education, healthcare and various industries. If these African nations cannot develop an appropriate and effective prevention strategy, than it is possible that the whole continent will simply implode. Sociology is an important component of the fight against AIDS.
Policymakers must come to understand the need to involve the community in the design and implementation of prevention programs (Bagasao, 1998). The lack of understanding regarding the importance of sociology can lead to costly mistakes.
There is a need to understand people in order to assure that prevention programs are going to work. There are many misconceptions in the minds of the people that needed help.
For example, in one study the researchers discovered that there was a time when African Americans had a very negative view about contraceptives and believed that there was some sort of conspiracy concocted to harm them and that the government used contraceptives as the tool for their destruction (Bird & Bogart, 2005). This is the reason why sociology must be utilised correctly in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The fight against HIV/AIDS must not be limited in the field of science. The fight must also occur in the social sphere. The need to study human behaviour is of a great importance, especially when dealing with a medical problem that invites ridicule and shame to infected carriers.
It is important to note that the same phenomenon cannot be expected from those suffering from terminal sicknesses like cancer, but social stigma is common in AIDS patients.
The medical professionals know how to treat the patients but the failure to deal with the social issues prevents the use of medical science to mitigate the impact of the disease. Thus, sociological principles must be utilised correctly to deal with the social impact of HIV/AIDS, as well as in the development of effective intervention strategies.
Bagasao, M. 1998, ‘Moving forward through community response: lessons learned from HIV prevention in Asia and the Pacific’, Health and Human Rights, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 9-18.
Bird, S. & Bogart, L. 2005, ‘Conspiracy beliefs about HIV/AIDS and birth control among African Americans: implications for the prevention of HIV, other STDs and unintended pregnancy’, Journal of Social Issues, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 109-126.
Dowsett, G. 2003, ‘HIV/AIDS and homophobia: subtle hatreds, severe consequences and the question of origins’, Culture, Health and Sexuality, vol. 5, no. 2, pp. 121-136.
Dugger, C. 2004, ‘Devastated by AIDS, Africa Sees Life Expectancy Plunge‘, New York Times. Web.
Farmer, P. 1999, Infections and inequalities: the modern plagues, University of California Press, Berkeley.
Gausset, Q. 2001, ‘AIDS and cultural practices in Africa: the case of the Tonga (Zambia)’, Social Science & Medicine, 52, pp. 509-518.
Macionis, J. & Plummer K. 2008, Sociology: a global introduction, 4th ed, Pearson, Harlow, England.
Middleberg, M. 2003, Promoting reproductive security in developing countries, Kluwer Academic Publishing, New York.
Piot, P. & Bartos M. 2002, “The epidemiology of HIV and AIDS”, in AIDS in Africa, Kluwer Academic Publishing, New York.
Robinson, P. 2008, The changing world of gay men, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.