When speaking of HIV, words matter

When speaking of HIV, words matter

HIV infection is a health condition which is surrounded by judgement and prejudice. For too many years it has been thought that whoever has the virus, contracted it because they were doing “something wrong” or through “reprehensible” behaviors, such as drug use, multiple sexual partners or relationships with same sex partners.

However, the reality is that HIV may be acquired by anybody: someone who received an organ transplant, a wife who has only had intercourse with her husband or a doctor who got infected in a work related incident involving a contaminated needle.

The weight of stigma has been a great obstacle in preventing new cases, since when someone feels that they have not done anything “wrong”, they don’t believe they’re at risk, and that the only people who can become infected are those who “behave badly”.

And a very important factor in combating stigma is words. The way in which we refer to the infection, the people who have it, or the sexual behaviors can facilitate or hinder (depending on the case) a more objective discussion on the subject.

Every single letter bears weight 

A frequent question is what to call people with HIV, and the answer is: just like that, people with HIV or people living with HIV, as a way of emphasizing that even with the virus, life goes on.

Even terms that were intended to be more respectful have been discontinued because they are not precise, for example, “HIV-positive people”, since the concept refers to a positive result that could not only refer to HIV, but also to other viruses.

It is also worth remembering that HIV is not contagious, it is transmitted. A disease is contagious when the microorganism that causes it can survive outside the human body, and as a more than clear example we have the current SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It is said that a disease is transmitted when the infectious agent does not survive outside the body, as is the case with HIV, which is not found in swimming pools or toilets or kitchen utensils, and so on.

Finally, the correct terms help respect people’s dignity. At the beginning of the epidemic,   homosexual men, drug users or sex workers were referred to as “risk groups”. However, being a homosexual or a sex worker is not, in itself, a risk. The risk is in the behavior. If a sex worker uses a condom with all of her clients and with her stable partner, she will not face a high risk of HIV. In contrast, if a college student has sex without a condom and while drunk, they may be likely to face a higher risk of infection.

Language is a way of interpreting and representing the world, and using the right words is not a matter of being “politically correct”, but of understanding reality in its proper dimension.

At AHF Latin America and the Caribbean we provide HIV services free from stigma and discrimination. If you want to get a free HIV test or require more information on how to start your treatment, we can help you. Come to our closest office in your country or write to us on WhatsApp.