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Staying positive in a negative world

Charlie Sheen brought the issue of HIV back in public eye through his confession. There is a dire need for a fast track response to AIDS

Story: Peter | Borges | 30th November 2015, 12:00 Hrs

Recently, just two weeks before the World AIDS Day on December 1, Charlie Sheen announced that he has HIV in an exclusive interview with Matt Lauer. "It's a hard three letters to absorb. It's a turning point in one's life," the 50-year-old actor said. The news dominated headlines across the globe, undoubtedly surprised some and not others, the latter perhaps because his lifestyle involved several risk factors for transmission.

But I have been surprised simply because, well, a lot of folks have forgotten HIV is still around, now that it doesn’t dominate the headlines as it once did. I am pleased that Charlie Sheen was able to openly discuss his HIV positive status after four years of diagnosis. By talking about it, he's brought the issue of HIV back into the public eye. "I have to put a stop to this onslaught, this barrage of attacks and of sub-truths and very harmful and mercurial stories that are about me, threatening the health of so many others that couldn't be further from the truth," he said. His experience since he was diagnosed goes to the very heart of living with HIV: the stigma that is so attached to HIV is as much a killer as AIDS itself.

The HIV stigma in Goa is well noticed in all health care, educational and corporate settings. A year and half back, the discrimination meted out to 23 HIV positive school children at Rivona school has already caused harm to the children, who still live in fear, unable to gather confidence to pursue their studies and career. The emerging challenge now in addressing HIV is addressing needs of children who have acquired HIV perinatal and are visible in various settings and looking to be accepted in the mainstream society.

Here there is need for education and health sector to work very closely. The education sector needs to acknowledge and anticipate the reality of stigma and discrimination and take prompt and effective action. HIV related policy and practices should be reviewed to ensure that they neither exacerbate nor reinforce stigma and discrimination against students and staff. Appropriate training and education should be provided for the entire school community and commitments made and enforced in relation to zero-tolerance of stigma and discrimination. It is also important to initiate mechanisms for monitoring progress.

The health sector can support the education sector (and vice versa) by ensuring that service providers do not perpetuate stigma and discrimination and are providing non-judgemental, psycho-social support services (or appropriate referral) for those experiencing stigma and discrimination. The health sector should also be pro-active in disseminating accurate information within local communities that acknowledges and challenges common misunderstanding and prejudices about HIV and related issues, including sexuality.

Also, today HIV stigma also exists in Goa in a lot of different ways, including ostracism, rejection and avoidance. HIV testing without permission or security, compulsory HIV testing without prior consent or protection of confidentiality; violence against people living with HIV or people who are perceived to be infected with HIV; the quarantine of HIV positive individuals and, in some cases, the loss of property rights when a spouse dies are some of the stigmas that still exist in our state.

What Charlie Sheen has done by revealing his status is to open up a conversation around the world about HIV. For me, this is the most important thing. Most of the time, the focus is on when and who has contracted HIV. There is more focus on the person’s past behaviour. Instead we should look at it as an opportunity to talk to our kids, our siblings, our friends, about safe and healthy sex.

In recent years, the world has pretty much forgotten about HIV and AIDS, because everyone thinks that it's an issue that has had its time, and is no longer something to care about, no longer something that has an impact. Charlie Sheen joins the long line of 2.5 million people living with HIV in India and close to 15,000 people in Goa today, and the 37 million HIV+ people around the world. Let this be a reminder for us all, so that we can learn from it.

Stigma and discrimination are our greatest challenges and this must be eliminated in order to reach all people and populations with effective HIV testing, prevention and treatment services. Stigma, discrimination and social exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, legal status and drug use, for example, increase vulnerability to HIV and impede a more robust response. These barriers also foster inequality and insecurity and obstruct broader health and development progress.

We will only reach the fast-track targets by leaving no one behind: ensuring that marginalized and stigmatized people can access sexuality education, HIV testing and prevention options such as condoms and effective HIV treatment, including scaling up tuberculosis care. A fast-tracked AIDS response requires us to work with vulnerable people and populations at particular risk, including sex workers, people who inject drugs, transgender people and men who have sex with men, besides making our societies free of violence, especially against young women and girls.

We continue to live in a world ravaged by HIV and AIDS. Every day about 5600 people contract HIV -- more than 230 every hour, and nearly half of them are adolescents. By coming forward, Charlie Sheen is helping to de-stigmatize an issue that needs more discussion, and he is helping us realise once again that this virus still exists, in all our communities.

Founder of Human Touch, a youth led organization based in Goa addressing HIV and substance abuse among young people

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