KAMPALA, 20 September 2012 (PlusNews) - Ugandans have grown familiar with HIV over the past three decades, but new research suggests that many are still scandalized by it; according to the 2011 National AIDS Indicator Survey, released on 18 September, many people still attach shame and blame to people living with the virus.
Although the population-based survey showed that 93 percent of men and 92 percent of women are willing to care for a family member with HIV at, some 21.6 percent of men and 16.8 percent of women felt people living with HIV should be ashamed of themselves, while 22 percent of men and 18.3 percent of women agreed that those with HIV should be blamed for bringing the disease to the community.
"It surprises us at this stage of the epidemic [that] there are still negative attitudes towards HIV-positive people. We must change our perceptions towards these people. We must accept them," Wilford Kirungi, a senior epidemiologist at the Ministry of Health, said at the launch of the report.
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The issue of stigma is all the more important because, thanks to life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs, more people than ever are living with HIV.
"Stigma is still there... Some of my friends can't relate well with me since they learnt of my HIV status," Robert Okello*, who lives in the capital, Kampala, told IRIN/PlusNews.
Stigma towards marginalized but high-risk populations - including sex workers and men who have sex with men (MSM) - also hinders the fight against HIV, activists say. The country is struggling to lower its HIV prevalence, which rose from 6.4 percent in 2006 to 7.3 percent in 2011, according to the report.
Hostility against MSM is very high among the country's leadership and the general population. Rights groups recently condemned an attack on a transgender person at a Kampala nightclub. Gay Ugandans say such attacks are commonplace and that perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.
An attempt to toughen legislation against homosexual sex continues in parliament despite widespread international condemnation. The AIDS Indicator Survey does not mention MSM, despite a 2008-2009 study finding that HIV prevalence among MSM respondents was 13.7 percent.
"Uganda is generally a highly religious country. The irony is that it is okay to harm a person suspected to be gay," Pepe Julian Onziema, programmes director for the rights group Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG). "With a safe environment, both the gay community and HIV programme implementers can together educate each other and the rest of the society about the importance of staying HIV-free."
"It is heart-breaking that the government claims it wants to wipe out HIV and yet at any given chance, it ignores gay Ugandans in the strategies," she added. "We will face challenges ahead if we do not take on the HIV fight as a collective responsibility."
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]