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Poor public understanding of HIV is costing lives.

Stigma and discrimination may be preventing people with HIV coming forward for diagnosis and treatment.

A report published today in the online journal Sexually Transmitted Infections suggests a significant proportion of HIV positive patients may not be disclosing their infection to NHS staff, when turning up for treatment at sexual health clinics.

If the findings reflect a national trend, this could have implications for the true prevalence of undiagnosed HIV infection in the population, which is based on the numbers of “undiagnosed” patients at sexual health clinics, say the authors.

Currently, it is estimated that around one in four people in the UK who is HIV positive doesn’t know s/he is infected with the virus.

It is thought that a proportion of patients who do know their HIV status nevertheless choose not to reveal it to NHS staff when attending for services elsewhere, so the researchers set about trying to find out whether there is any basis for this belief.

The reasons why they don’t "come clean" about their HIV status may be that they don’t want to be “judged,” given that they have come to the clinic with another infection, which implies they are indulging in risky sexual behaviour, the author of the report suggests.

But by not revealing their HIV status, they could be missing out on the chance to be treated more holistically and discuss other aspects of their health which might be affected by HIV.

If this problem is to be tackled we need to change the cultural attitude about HIV and AIDS to end the fear of discrimination.

People living with HIV are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, as HIV remains a highly stigmatised condition. One in three people diagnosed with HIV have experienced HIV-related discrimination at some time. Sadly in the last decade public understanding of HIV/AIDS has declined and public health campaigns have withered on the vine. At the same time the number of damaging myths and misconceptions has increased.

Sadly also there has been no positive change in public attitudes towards HIV, and a significant minority of the public still hold stigmatising and discriminatory views about people with the virus.

Such attitudes and lack of public awareness, by stopping people coming forward for diagnosis and treatment, is costing lives.

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