Multiple reports from UK tabloids such as the Sun and the Mirror have appeared over the past few days presuming a HIV positive test by a male Hollywood actor. Along with the test results and salacious comments about his lifestyle, tidbits of information have been given about past partners to try and encourage readers to unethically guess his identity.
As if encouraging the public to go on a witch hunt to identify someone with HIV wasn't bad enough, the headlines that accompanied the story are a depressing reminder that ignorance and stigma about the virus are still worryingly commonplace, as illustrated by a slew of headline that sound like they have been dragged straight from the '80s.
Assuming the story is true, the celebrity in question has reportedly had the virus "for years," which is very important when it comes to unpicking the web of misinformation that has fueled the shocking headlines. The fact that this celebrity resides in the U.S.A. and is fortunate enough to have access to the best HIV treatments in the world means that they would be rendered essentially non-infectious, making all of the fears that the tabloids are trying to stir up even more baseless than they were in the first place.
Although I could go into great detail here about just how these fear-mongering headlines are an enormous step back in the fight to change attitudes and perceptions around the virus, I'm going to let the headlines do the talking and explain just what is so damaging about them.
No Grasp of the Basic Facts
Radar Online, who broke the story on November 2, have not even managed to correctly distinguish between HIV and AIDS, and there is also a likelihood that it was done deliberately to sensationalize the story.
In short, you can have HIV without having AIDS, and many people live a normal life with HIV without ever developing AIDS, thanks to modern medications. AIDS is the final stage of the disease which occurs when your immune system is badly damaged and you become vulnerable to opportunistic infections.
People with AIDS typically have less than three years to live and are often those without the resources to access appropriate, life-preserving treatment. When we talk about the epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa and see images of emaciated and seriously ill people, this is AIDS, but the person on the treadmill next to you at the gym could have HIV and you would be unable to tell.
The way that the headlines focus on the unnamed celebrity's sex life and imply that his past partners might be suing him for putting them at risk opens up a Pandora's box of misinformation.
While HIV is primarily a sexually transmitted disease, the use of the word 'womanizing' implies that he caught the virus thanks to the number of people who he slept with, and invites us to judge him for it. You can have unprotected sex with one person and be unlucky enough to get HIV or have unprotected sex with 1,000 and be fine. Implying the spread of the virus works in any other way can actually encourage people to take 'just this once' risks.
Also, implying that Hollywood has been rocked by panic and past sexual partners are hammering at the door to sue this person is little short of portraying those who live with HIV as biblical lepers. In reality, a person who is on the appropriate ART (anti retroviral) treatment is effectively non-infectious and could even have unprotected sex without spreading HIV, although most people choose to use barrier protection as an extra precaution.
Misinformation like this causes shame, which can prevent people from getting tested and, in turn, spread HIV.
Victim Blaming at Its Worst
The Mirror headline, which implies that the unnamed star "deserves everything he gets" because he was irresponsible and didn't use a condom (presumably) and doesn't deserve any sympathy because he is rich, is probably the worst of the lot. Yes, irresponsible sexual behavior is the biggest cause of HIV, but we should be working on educating people about the risks to reduce it instead of throwing rocks at those who have contracted the virus.
Of course, people in poverty who become infected with HIV/AIDs are at the worst disadvantage, both in terms of education to prevent catching the disease and access to medical care, but that doesn't meant that others should be condemned.
People who are diagnosed with HIV and are privileged enough to have access to medical care do not need to be shamed about how they caught the virus, or their privilege itself, but need support.
They are paying for their mistakes already with a lifetime of difficult conversations and a reliance on expensive daily medication, and – if we're all honest – I'm sure most of us have put ourselves at risk and could be in the same position.
A Light in the Dark
Thankfully, it's not all bad news in terms of press coverage, and a few news outlets such as the UK's Independent have called out the dangerous nature of the headlines.
In the sage words of HIV positive advisor Tom Hayes, who wrote the piece above:
Articles like his [Dan Wootton in The Sun] create and reinforce stigma. Articles like this cause harm. Articles like this stop people going to get tested, which in turn stops them getting treated, which in turn leads to more people being infected. Articles like this make it harder for people to disclose their HIV status. Articles like this make people living with HIV feel like social outcasts.
Which, I think we can all agree is much more important that some scandalous gossip.