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U.N. group condemns AIDS stigma

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DURBAN, South Africa — Countries that are gathered at the world racism conference need to adopt legislation to outlaw discrimination against those infected with HIV, the United Nations' top AIDS fighter said Wednesday.

The laws should send a clear message of support to people who are infected, a message that should encourage them to publicly reveal their infection and help break down the stigma surrounding the disease, said Dr. Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS, the U.N. organization that works to coordinate the global AIDS fight.

"Why would you come out if you may lose your house, you may lose your job, your husband or wife throws you out, you may be stoned to death?" he said.

Piot has been asking delegates at the conference, which also focuses on forms of discrimination other than racism, to challenge the crushing stigma attached to AIDS.

The shame attached to AIDS is helping fuel the spread of the disease around the world, Piot said. If people refuse to be tested or acknowledge they have the disease, they can not get help or counseling and will likely continue spreading the disease.

"You can't fight AIDS without fighting the stigma and discrimination," Piot said.

About 36 million people around the world are infected with HIV; 25.3 million of those infected live in Africa, according to UNAIDS.

In a speech Tuesday, Piot paid tribute to Gugu Dlamini, a South African woman who publicly revealed she had HIV in November 1998 and was beaten to death three weeks later.

"HIV is associated with sex and or with drugs in many societies, if not in all," Piot said. "These are difficult issues, and it's associated with shame and fear because of that."

"Stigma and discrimination prevent leaders from coming out and speaking about AIDS. They feel inhibited. They don't want to be associated with it," he said.

The racism conference has adopted language for its final declaration noting that "people infected or affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as those who are presumed to be infected, belong to groups vulnerable to racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, which has a negative impact and impedes their access to health care and medication."

A study of hospitals in India released Wednesday showed that some of the most blatant forms of discrimination against people with HIV there occur in hospitals.

Patients are denied care, medical workers refuse to touch them, they are given mandatory AIDS tests before surgery and the results are not kept confidential, Dr. Shalini Bharat, of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay, India, told a news conference Wednesday.

"Very often women are blamed for their husband's HIV status," she said. When they become widows they are denied health care, a place in their husband's family's home, a portion of his estate and in some cases even contact with her children, she said.

Piot said heroes and national leaders need to publicly challenge HIV discrimination.

He also urged the delegates to document HIV-related human rights violations, encourage support groups for those with HIV and ensure prevention and care are available to all members of society.

"Just like with prevention and treatment, we need a combination of efforts to tackle discrimination," he said.