In 1993, Philadelphia was one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia. In this movie, Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, was a lawyer who hides his AIDS-related lesions from his boss for fear of being fired.
Scene Not So Different Twenty Years Later
Flash to 2012 and those afflicted are still reticent. They are scared of losing their jobs, lovers or friends. According to a Harvard Law School’s Health Law and Policy Clinic study in 2009, more than one in five Massachusetts residents living with HIV reported that they “work hard” to keep their medical status private from everyone. Nearly half said they did not reveal their HIV status outside of their family.
Even Drs. Don’t Treat HIV Patients Well
Approximately 30% of a survey of 284 HIV positive people reported they had been treated badly by health care providers or felt stigmatized by not only support staff but the doctors themselves. One patient had her HIV status disclosed twice in South Shore Hospital: the retiree had two friends, visitors in her hospital room, when her doctor walked into the room and said,” I understand you have HIV.” Her so-called friends no longer speak to her as a result. (“Stigma of HIV keeps thousands silent” by Deborah Kotz, The Boston Globe, 8/13/12.) Another time, she didn’t tell anyone she was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. It went undisclosed until she was admitted to South Shore ten years later for seizures caused by the HIV infection. Without her approval, the doctor announced her HIV condition to her mother and brother in the waiting room.
Under federal law, providers can in some cases be fined for publicly disclosing health information without a patient’s consent. State law specifically prohibits health care providers from disclosing patients’ HIV status without their written consent.
As of last month, patients now have to give only verbal consent to their doctors. “We pushed for this law to normalize testing for HIV,” said Rebecca Haag, president of the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. It should encourage more patients to get tested. It is estimated that 15 to 18 percent of Massachusetts’s 26 to 28,000 residents have HIV and don’t know they are carriers.
Old Myths Persist
Many people believe that the virus can be transmitted through toilet seats, food plates, drinking glasses, saliva, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. They do not know that it can be spread only by blood or sexual intercourse.
Consequently, some say that they prefer to avoid people who are infected. HIVspecialists point to such attitudes as reasons for people at risk for HIV don’t get tested for the virus.