Speakers Drive Home the “Human” in HIV at Stigma Conference

WASHINGTON (Dec. 1) – For Michelle Lopez, the heart of HIV begins with the word behind the first letter of the acronym.

“What does the first letter of HIV stand for?” asked Lopez, the keynote speaker for the Third Annual International HIV Stigma Conference. “Human. HIV is about the lives of humans.  That’s where it begins.”

Humanizing HIV and HIV as a human rights issue was a main focus of the conference on stigma Nov. 30 at Howard University.  The conference focused on educating individuals in the medical community and the community-at-large about how the stigma associated with having HIV negatively affects patients.  The conference featured many different speakers discussing diverse topics, but a recurring theme was HIV as a human rights issue.

“We are taking away the rights from those who are the most vulnerable,” Lopez said.

Lopez, is originally from Trinidad but moved to New York in 1984. She was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 after giving birth to her second child and has been an activist ever since.  During her keynote address, Lopez revealed how people would spray chairs with disinfectant after she got up from her seat, afraid that she would infect them. She said that the key to addressing stigma is sharing personal stories like these and to humanize the disease.

“We need to stop thinking it’s about ‘those people’” she said. “It’s about us as human beings.”

More than 500 people from across the globe attended the daylong conference.   The conference featured speakers from university hospitals in the Washington area, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as international speakers from Uganda and Peru. Topics include stigma in public policy and the community, challenges for faith-based organizations regarding HIV and stigma in immigrant populations. 

Other speakers touched on the issue of human rights as well.  Daniel Montoya, deputy executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council, linked HIV stigma policy to human rights as he talked about policies in the United States that criminalize HIV.

Dr. Sohail Rana, pediatric hematologist and oncologist at Howard University College of Medicine and Howard University Hospital and a key organizer of the conference, linked HIV stigma to human rights through personal stories of his patients. One story described a woman in labor waiting for hours for a doctor to deliver her baby by caesarian delivery because no one wanted to operate on an HIV positive patient.

“Stigma takes away every single human right of a person living with HIV,” Rana said.

Lopez said that personal stories make all the difference when teaching about stigma, so that people realize that those with HIV are people too.

“I gotta be able to live,” Lopez said, “no matter who I am.”

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