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In the 20th century, scientists from the biomedical field were able to defeat a significant number of communicable diseases. This is especially true in highly industrialized nations such as those found in Europe and America. But before the century ended, the world was shocked upon the discovery of a new and far more deadly infectious disease brought about by the HIV/AIDS virus. What is most frightening is that this sickness has no known cure. In the latter part of the 20th century, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infected large numbers of people and after infection, the men and women infected with HIV began to develop AIDS or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, a debilitating disease that kills every infected person. Thus, the scientific world was turned upside down in search of a cure, and for a long time, the focus was on the biomedical aspect of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But the time has come not only to study the science behind HIV/AIDS; it is also important to take a closer look at the sociological aspect of the much-dreaded disease.
In the history of mankind, the human race struggled with various sicknesses and diseases. There were terrible plagues that claimed the lives of millions of people all over the world. There were epidemics so terrible that those who are living in the modern world could scarcely believe that there was a time when European civilization tethered on the brink of extinction (Loftus, par. 1). This is because in the 20th-century scientific breakthroughs like the discovery of vaccination and rapid improvements in healthcare prevented the spread of deadly germs and ensured the survival of many.
But in the latter part of the last century, the world was astounded by the discovery of a new lethal virus. The HIV virus is unlike any other virus or pathogen because there is no vaccine available and the fact that once infected with the HIV most patients succumb to an untimely death. This is made possible by the unusual method of attack; the virus goes after the immune system, specifically the white blood cells of the human host. Since white blood cells are the major component of the human body’s immune system, a low white blood count means that the infected person will be susceptible to various diseases. This is the time when the HIV-infected person can now be labeled as having full-blown AIDS, the state where the body could no longer ward off infectious pathogens that in normal conditions can easily be controlled by the body’s immune system.
The absence of vaccines and the mode of attack created one of the most lethal viruses known to man. The only upside to the HIV/AIDS epidemic is the fact that the virus could only be transmitted through bodily fluids. This means that the HIV virus can only be passed on from human to human through sexual intercourse, sharing of hypodermic needles, blood transfusion, and during pregnancies, the infected mother can transmit the virus to her unborn child. Even if the mode of transmission is not as easy as catching a cold, the number of infected people and the significantly high number of deaths as a result of the HIV/AIDS epidemic are causes for concern.
Being infected with the HIV virus is like being sentenced to life imprisonment. There is no way out. The disease can be controlled for a brief period but when HIV/AIDS had taken its course the patient will die. Thus, being infected with the virus can also be considered a death sentence. Due to the lethal effects of the HIV virus, it is not surprising to find people who are deathly afraid to come in close proximity to those who are known to have HIV. It is just human nature to feel dread in the presence of such a deadly disease.
There are multiple ways of looking at the sociological impact of the virus with regard to the social environment. The obvious place to start is to find out the sociological impact of HIV/AIDS with regards to the infected person. The second way of studying the sociological impact of the disease is to find out the reaction of loved ones to someone infected with HIV. The third manner of study is to look at how society, concerning in general, came to view those who are infected with the HIV virus and those who are already in the final stages of AIDS.
Without a doubt, no one will rejoice after the discovery that he or she has HIV/AIDS. The infected patient can expect death to come sooner or later.
While no one lives forever it is still disheartening to know that life will be cut short. Those who cannot afford the expensive healthcare necessary to mitigate the impact of the virus can be sure to die in an untimely manner. For young women, the impact can readily be horrendous especially if they are married and would like to have children. As mentioned earlier it is very risky to conceive while infected with HIV. This is therefore the reason why those who are infected with the virus are suffering from anxiety and a host of mental problems (Rigges et al., 923). The link between HIV/AIDS and depression was already established and studies show that there is a high possibility of developing symptoms of depression such as a) insomnia; b) anorexia; c) psychomotor retardation; and d) frequent crying (Masci, 88). If death is certain then it is hard to maintain a positive outlook.
Since the 21st century is similar to the last century in terms of rapid development in the field of biomedical science, the focus had always been on finding the cure as well as the impact of the virus on the human body. Thus, there is a tendency to concentrate on the scientific aspect of the disease as opposed to the sociological impact of HIV/AIDS. But in recent years the focus has shifted to the social aspect of the much-dreaded disease because it was discovered – as in the case of Africa – that even when there is the presence of anti-retroviral medication and trained medical personnel the sociological aspect is interfering with the treatment program.
In Africa poverty, corruption, as well as the lack of basic education, is not only contributing to the rapid spread of the disease these sociological factors are also limiting the impact of prevention programs as well as increasing the possibility of developing resistant strains due to improper use of medication (Copson, 31). In the United States and other highly industrialized nations, the problem with the treatment program has nothing to do with education, corruption, or poverty. While advanced nations are no longer bothered by social issues confronting Third World countries there is still a sociological problem that all nations share in common and it is the stigma and fear surrounding HIV/AIDS.
Thus, while it is the natural tendency of researchers to simply focus on the scientific aspect of HIV/AIDS, it is now imperative to also take a closer look at the interaction between HIV-positive individuals and their relationship with their loved ones, their friends, and colleagues. While patients suffering from HIV/AIDS need to develop coping mechanisms, their loved ones are also in the same boat because they also need to have coping mechanisms that will enable them to support patients. This means that HIV/AIDS patients require help in dealing with the emotional and psychological impact of the disease.
Aside from the infected patients and their loved ones, the sociological impact of HIV/AIDS extends to the community where the infected person lives. This is a very important part of the study because the interaction of the patient and society as a whole will provide another rich layer to the study of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Those who are infected with the HIV virus will not only have to deal with the added financial burden due to mounting medical expenses; they must also deal with the radical changes in their social lives that will come not only from the physical toll but also from the emotional and psychological impact of the disease.
Stigma and Discrimination
As mentioned earlier being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS can be considered as a death sentence that would trigger feelings of hopelessness, depression, anger, and other negative emotions. This feeling stems not only from thinking about their mortality but also from the realization that people around them, even their families, friends, and relatives behave in a way that would make them feel that they are not the same person they used to be.
At this point, those who are infected with the virus begin to dwell about the following, “Fears about family rejection, loss of job, and public shunning…” (Population Council, 2008). This in turn creates a pattern that will prevent the early detection of HIV infection as well as giving proper care to the infected person. Moreover, “Stigma and discrimination discourage those who are infected with and affected by HIV and AIDS from seeking needed services because seeking services may reveal their HIV status to their families, workplace colleagues, or community” (Population Council, 2008). While their reaction will not profit the community their response is understandable.
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Stigma and discrimination are the results of how the public perceives HIV/AIDS. This disease is often linked to homosexuality, promiscuity, and drug abuse. Thus, in a typical community like in an office setting, the news of someone infected with HIV will more often than not result in discrimination. Many will begin to think negatively against that person especially concerning morality and his or her lifestyle. Aside from being discriminated against there is also the paranoia caused by the fact that HIV/AIDS is a very lethal disease and that no one would like to be infected by such a horrible sickness.
Thus, even if one is aware of the mode of transmission from an infected patient to a healthy individual it is still very hard to maintain the same relationship with the HIV-positive individual. It is wrong to feel uncomfortable with talking to an infected person or even feel squeamish when shaking his or her hand because the virus could not be transmitted by normal physical contact; to reiterate, the virus can only be transmitted through blood transfusion, sharing of needles, sexual intercourse and mother to child interaction during the pregnancy. Still, such behavior is very much understandable in light of the deadly HIV virus.
There must be a radical change with regards to how society view HIV positive individuals because the stigma and discrimination that is the direct consequence of being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS can result in three things: 1) those who are infected will not seek help and treatment; 2) their condition will worsen without access to healthcare, and 3) they will infect more people. One of the most devastating effects of stigma and discrimination can be understood through the following statements, “Greater stress in HIV+ populations has been linked to poor coping strategies, sleep disturbance, depression, greater risk for worsening HIV disease stage and faster progression to AIDS” (Riggs et al., 925). As mentioned earlier the infected patient must develop coping strategies and failure to do so will aggravate his or her condition.
It is also important to point out that the inability to cope with the disease will lead to sleep disturbance and depression. These two will trigger a chain reaction of events that would accelerate the progress of the disease. Since HIV/AIDS develops in different stages then the impact of stigma and discrimination can only exacerbate the condition of the patient. This means that aside from providing access to quality healthcare such as qualified health workers and effective drugs there is also a need to improve the social aspect of the treatment program.
It is therefore imperative that the patient is surrounded by people who will not criticize and judge him or her for being infected with the HIV/AIDS virus. The loving and caring environment created by loved ones and friends will give the person much-needed peace of mind and this will ensure that adequate sleep can be achieved. This also means that the slide towards depression can be prevented and as a result, the patient will have a greater chance of strengthening his or her body from the ravages of the HIV virus.
There is one important lesson that can be learned here. Just like any other sickness, the need for emotional support is vital. This will free up the person to focus on recovery and not to be burden by the unnecessary impact of stigma and discrimination. To reiterate, these things are very crucial because of the nature of the HIV/AIDS virus. As mentioned earlier this is not an ordinary pathogen where the patient is overwhelmed by the multiplication of deadly virus or germs in the body. In the case of the HIV virus, the mode of attack is different. Instead of damaging the organs and tissues of the body, this type of sickness targets the immune system. Thus, when the white blood cells reach dangerously low levels the HIV-infected person moves on to the next stage and the patient has now AIDS and is now much closer to death.
It is plain wrong to subject an HIV-positive person to stigma and discrimination. At the most critical stage in the person’s life, the only thing needed from family members, friends, colleagues, and other members of the community is love and support. But assistance in the form of emotional support does not always happen and this is because of three reasons: a) HIV/AIDS is not yet fully understood by many, and b) the very lethal disease inspires fear and anxiety from people; and c) stigma and discrimination usually come after being diagnosed with HIV.
It is understandable why they behave this way but if this will not be rectified then the same people who acted out of ignorance will one day reap what they had sown. This is because creating an atmosphere of rejection and discrimination will force HIV-positive individuals to hide their problems and this means that they will continue to live undiagnosed. This also means that they can continue to infect others who do not suspect that they are infected with HIV. The chain reaction of events will continue and sooner or later if things will not change the community will be overwhelmed with a large number of HIV cases. This will be a drain to the economy and will negatively affect everyone, those who are infected with HIV and those who are still free from infection.
- Copson, Raymond. The United States in Africa. Edited by Olufemi Wusu. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Loftus, Melissa et al. “Black Death.”
- Masci, J. Outpatient Management of HIV Infection. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press,2001.
- Population Council. “HIV and AIDS: Stigma and Discrimination.”
- Riggs, et al. “Attachment Style, Stigma and Psychological Distress Among HIV+ Adults.” Journal of Heath Psychology. (2007); 12: 922-936.