Stigma towards people living with HIV in healthcare settings driven by fear, say researchers

Sep 20 2023 Posted: 11:06 IST

New research has found that 40% of healthcare workers say they would worry, at least a little, about drawing blood from a person living with HIV. Findings from the report HIV-related Stigma in Healthcare Settings in Ireland found that one in five healthcare workers report using special measures they would not use with other patients.

The research was led by Dr Elena Vaughan at the Health Promotion Research Centre in the University of Galway, in collaboration with HIV Ireland, with funding provided by the Irish Research Council.

“A positive finding of the research is that healthcare workers do not hold negative attitudes towards people living with HIV,” said Dr Vaughan, speaking in advance of the launch. “However, a significant proportion still fear acquiring HIV through routine procedures, such as dressing wounds, and this appears to be driving stigmatising behaviours,” she said.

“Where suspected exposure to HIV does occur, there is also post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can prevent the virus from taking hold”, continued Ms Vaughan. “Efforts to better translate this knowledge to healthcare workers should help reduce healthcare worker anxieties and lessen stigmatising behaviours towards people living with HIV,” she added.

The findings from the report were produced following a joint national survey and interviews with both healthcare workers and people living with HIV. More than 400 people took part in the research, including 298 healthcare workers and 89 people living with HIV from across Ireland.

The survey, conducted in 2022, was the first of its kind to be carried out in Europe as the researchers sought to learn both from people living with HIV and those who provide them with healthcare.

Of the 89 people living with HIV who took part in the survey, 24% reported having been told to come back later, made to wait, or put last in a queue when attending for appointments. More than half (54%) reported having avoided healthcare for worry about how they will be treated by healthcare workers.

“The findings show how stigma experienced in healthcare settings can put people off engaging in vital care, which can have negative consequences for both individual and public health,” said Stephen O’Hare, Executive Director of HIV Ireland. “People living with HIV who are on successful courses of treatment, as the vast majority are in Ireland, are healthy and well, and have an undetectable viral load, meaning they cannot transmit the virus to others,” he added.

Reflecting on Government’s own target of reducing HIV-related stigma in line with international goals, including the global Fast Track Cities initiative, Mr O’Hare added:

“This report helps us identify areas where we can provide information and support to both healthcare workers and people living with HIV, so we can reduce HIV stigma in our healthcare system in line with our global commitments.”

The report, which is available to download on the website of HIV Ireland, will be launched today by Ms Sinead Gibney, Chief Commissioner of Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission at its headquarters on Green Street, in Dublin.


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