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Amber Ravenell
Office of University Communications
Tragedy, Rejection Advance Need for Third Annual HIV Stigma Conference

WASHINGTON -- In Dallas, a 28-year-old mother of two was brutally stabbed to death by her new boyfriend after they had sex and he discovered she was HIV positive.  Almost 1400 miles away, a 14-year-old honors student from Philadelphia was denied admission into a prominent boarding school in Hershey, Pa., because he too was HIV positive.

What do these two people have in common with thousands of other Americans?

They have both been affected by the stigma surrounding the human immunodeficiency virus, commonly known as HIV. 

These incidents are exactly what members of the Coalition for the Elimination of AIDS-related Stigma (CEAS) are hoping to combat at the Third Annual International Conference on Stigma on Friday, Nov. 30, at Howard University.

“Many people with HIV don’t die from the virus, they die from stigma,” said Dr. Rebecca Vargas-Jackson of the Department of Pediatrics at Howard University Hospital.  “Many can live if they aren’t stigmatized.”

Health-related stigma refers to the debasing or degrading attitude of society that discredits a person or group because of an illness.  The stigma associated with HIV prevents people from getting tested, seeking medical treatment and disclosing their status to others, Vargas-Jackson said.  Because they don’t get tested or get treated, some people die.  The stigma can also cause patients to become depressed and stop taking their medication, again leading to death, she added.

Their failure to disclose their status leads to transmission of the disease to others, she said.

Many people fear being close to those who are HIV positive for fear of transmission, but Vargas-Jackson says that is mostly due to ignorance about how the disease is transmitted. She also believes medical professionals play a large-role in perpetuating HIV stigma.

“I think sometimes the people who stigmatize the most are doctors and nurses,” Vargas-Jackson said.

She said sometimes doctors won’t operate on patients with HIV, and nurses and other clinicians are hesitant to treat them.

This issue and more will be addressed during this year’s conference, which will take place in the Blackburn Center Ballroom  and is sponsored by Howard University and CEAS.  CEAS is a group of professionals, community leaders and concerned individuals that have come together to eliminate the stigma associated with HIV.

The conference will feature speakers from university hospitals in the Washington area, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as international speakers from Uganda and Peru. Topics include stigma in public policy and the community, challenges for faith-based organizations regarding HIV and stigma in immigrant populations.  

The keynote speaker will be Jeanne White Ginder, the mother of Ryan White, the teenage boy who first brought HIV stigma to national attention in 1984 when he was expelled from his middle school for being HIV positive.  White passed away in 1990.  His mother has been a prominent advocate for HIV education and awareness.

Vargas-Jackson said she believes that awareness is key when dealing with HIV stigma.

“We are trying to determine the best practices to deal with stigma,” Vargas-Jackson said. “We need to have more awareness. The best way to get involved is to register for this conference.”

The conference will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it is free and open to the public. For more information and to register or donate, please visit

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