In order to understand and appreciate the various issues regarding this pandemic, it is essential that the terms ‘HIV’ and ‘AIDS’ be scrutinized from a communications standpoint. HIV refers to “Human Immunodeficiency Virus’. This tiny organism when it infects someone causes a reduction in the capabilities of that persons’ immune system. AIDS or “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” is a collection of diseases that results from a damaged and weakened immune system.
Once infected with HIV, a person appears healthy and symptom-free for many years before developing AIDS, and under the new treatment protocols, may never develop AIDS.
Therefore, a significant aspect of education regarding this pandemic is explaining that HIV and AIDS are NOT the same. Which is why one should never write “HIV/AIDS” anymore, as this implies a single concept. The accepted terminology is “HIV & AIDS”.
Similarly, a person infected with HIV is just that; HIV infected. These people are called HIV positive, terminology that refers to the HIV test, which, if positive, indicates that HIV infection has occurred. They do not necessarily have AIDS, may never have AIDS and treatment is aimed at preventing them developing AIDS.
People that are infected with HIV, (HIV positive), are suffering from a chronic disease in much the same way as a diabetic, asthmatic or someone with high blood pressure is. Similarly, in order to stay healthy and productive, they have to constantly manage their disease. This means adopting lifestyle changes, making dietary adjustments, taking medicines regularly, having access to the necessary medical and counselling services, and maintaining an optimistic and hopeful attitude.
Therefore, in an ideal working environment, people who are HIV positive should be afforded exactly the same respect, understanding and support one would give a colleague that has cancer, diabetes or heart disease – an appreciation that the person is trying to cope with a potentially fatal disease, is scared and worried about their health, and is not infectious through casual contact.
Unfortunately, people who are HIV positive are often not treated in this humanitarian manner. The HIV & AIDS pandemic is associated with high levels of stigma, discrimination and prejudice, a situation which complicates all aspects of treatment and care. HIV is transmitted sexually, and this leads to infected individuals being regarded as sinful, promiscuous and immoral. HIV infection has also been regarded as a ‘death sentence’, and this translates to infected workers being shunned by co-workers, disregarded for promotion and considered unfit to work. In addition, there is the morbid fear of casual contact transmitting the disease, which means even more fear and ostracizing of infected people.
The result is that, instead of support and care for HIV positive workers, they have to try and cope with a potentially fatal chronic disease in secret; too scared to tell anyone, fearful of being ‘found out’ and terrified their status will cost them their job. So, the treatment, testing, monitoring and support that is necessary for effective chronic disease management is also compromised – often with fatal consequences.
To deal with HIV infection in the workplace;
Create an environment that reduces the stigma and discrimination. This involves management, leadership and compassion.
Ensure on-going educational facilities. It is only through education that the true messages, information and medical realities can be disseminated effectively. Properly conducted, this education aspect should include all chronic diseases and conditions. This then involves many more staff and ‘normalises’ the HIV & AIDS aspect, categorizing it with the other chronic diseases and conditions.
Establish treatment and counselling infrastructure at the company. If done correctly this infrastructure, although initially designed around HIV & AIDS, could nevertheless deal with all chronic diseases and benefit all staff.