Reducing stigma critical to fighting AIDS epidemic

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Reducing the stigma attached to HIV/AIDS by creating an enabling environment for people infected and affected by the disease is a huge challenge, but is really important to making prevention efforts work, a senior U.S. AIDS expert said Wednesday.

"We estimate only one in five Americans who have HIV are actually in treatment, on therapy and fully controlled," Renslow Sherer, director of the International AIDS Training Center at the University of Chicago, told Xinhua in an interview.

Sherer, one of the founders of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, has been a primary caregiver for persons with HIV since 1982. A visiting professor at Wuhan University in central China's Hubei province, Sherer once met in Badong county a young HIV-positive man who had lost his job because of discrimination and was unable to find a new one. The young man later started a small brick-making business and hired local people with HIV.

"I think it is still the biggest challenge in China, the U.S. and around the world for World AIDS Day to eliminate discrimination against people with HIV ... People with HIV now can live normal and productive lives with a life expectancy of 60 to 70 years ... That's an astounding accomplishment to note for World AIDS Day," he added.

Apart from expanding testing and counseling, it was critical to reduce stigma and discrimination related to HIV/AIDs through laws and regulations, Sherer stressed. "We have to have an environment where a person can be free to be tested and feel that they won't be discriminated against, shunned in their community, and fired from their job, or else no one will feel safe," he said.

Around 2003, the Chinese government decided to provide free treatment to all people who were HIV positive, Sherer noted. "So in a short period of time, the government of China put together a very laudable, comprehensive plan to take care of people who were sick."

"I was impressed by the deep-level of commitment that the government made to HIV prevention and treatment around 2003," Sherer said. He was also impressed by how aggressively the Chinese government and provincial government in Hubei province decided to act against HIV.

A report published by the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec.1 lauded international efforts to stem the spread of the disease and those helping infected persons mitigate symptoms and stigma, calling 2011 a "game-changing" year for the international AIDS response.

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