This Persistent Prejudice Against AIDS Sufferers

A recent survey showed that most people say they wouldn't discriminate against someone because they were HIV positive. Others believe HIV prejudice went out with the eighties, and that we live in an AIDS aware era. The reality is different.

True, images of HIV positive children from Africa often appear on our TV, but silence surrounds the rising numbers of people becoming infected with HIV in this country. And that same silence allows the persistence of prejudice towards people living with HIV, and ignorance about how it is passed on.

It is almost inconceivable that after 20 years of campaigning, HIV charities such as the National AIDS Trust still hear from people who have been harassed at work, unfairly dismissed from jobs and rejected by friends and relatives -all as a result of being diagnosed with a long-term medical condition.

Recent figures show that HIV rates are on the increase, and in the UK the number of new cases have more than doubled in the past four years. With rising numbers of people affected, the need to challenge prejudice is more important than ever.

There is however, cause for hope. Today a loophole in disability discrimination law is being closed so that people living with HIV are protected from discrimination as soon as they are diagnosed. Importantly, this includes protection at work.

I have met and worked with many HIV-positive people and what unites them is the desire to be treated like anyone else. Yet, since the emergence of HIV, the virus has become inextricably linked with fear and blame, preventing many people from being open about their HIV status. Not only do they fear rejection and gossip from relatives and friends, but risk losing their job if they reveal their HIV status to their employer.

In developed countries, the majority of people living with HIV are of working age and have access to life-saving anti-retroviral treatment that enables them to lead active healthy lives. Yet, some 20 years into the epidemic, HIV remains a stigmatized condition, where many people living with HIV feel pressured to maintain silence about their condition for fear of exclusion and dismissal at work.

In the early days of the epidemic, grand gestures were made against HIV discrimination and films such as Philadelphia were lauded as landmarks, exposing ignorance and prejudice about HIV at work. But over 20 years later, are we any nearer the goal of treating people living with HIV as ordinary people with a long-term medical condition, or are we continuing to propagate a culture of fear and blame?

Some employers may mistakenly believe that this is not an issue for them because they have no HIV-positive employees. The reality is that many employers are already employing people living with HIV, they simply don't know it.

From 5 December 2005, the moment a person is diagnosed with HIV, discrimination based on their HIV status is illegal. Any employer who still thinks they can ignore their statutory obligations may be in for a rude awakening. They have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to protect their HIV positive employees from discrimination and prevent harassment.

They are also required not to discriminate against someone living with HIV in recruitment practices. Ignoring their responsibilities brings not only the risk of employment tribunals, but the danger of wasting the skills and talents of people living with HIV.

We live in a paradoxical culture where we are taking great strides towards tolerance and diversity through the law, yet irrational prejudice and discrimination against people living with HIV continues. The Governments' Equalities Review, whose aim is the modernization and streamlining of equality legislation into a single equality Act, and the establishment of a single Commission for Equality and Human Rights, offers real hope for effective action against discrimination on the grounds of HIV status, which is often linked to homophobia and racism.

All this is tangible evidence of the Government's commitment to equality and justice. However, campaigners will want to see evidence that this commitment will be carried forward into the conclusions of the Equalities Review.

Ultimately, it is not just the law that needs to change, but the attitudes and behavior of every individual, if we are to ensure that the unacceptable treatment of people living with HIV is eradicated. The extension of disability discrimination legislation is to be celebrated as a signal that we, as a society, recognize that HIV discrimination has no place at work.

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