"AIDS Speak:" Sensitive and Accurate Communication and the HIV Epidemic

Article excerpt

For many, the acronym AIDS conjures images of emaciation, discrimination, and death. People with AIDS have experienced discrimination in employment, housing, insurance, and other aspects of their lives. Children with AIDS have been denied access to schools. Public opinion polls conducted in 1986 indicated 45% favored quarantine or isolation of persons with AIDS. (1) These opinions and actions demonstrate a lack of understanding of HIV transmission and an insensitivity to those infected with HIV. Clarifying terms may assist persons to better understand this epidemic and become more sensitive to those who are infected with HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.


HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, the virus which causes AIDS. This virus attacks and, over time, usually damages and destroys the human immune system. This process may take some time (7-10 years or longer for some individuals). Often, those infected with HIV are asymptomatic. Some persons have remained asymptomatic for years. It is not until they develop opportunistic diseases or other clinical manifestations as defined by the Centers for Disease Control's case definition of AIDS that they are considered to have the disease AIDS. Therefore the phrases "catching AIDS" and "AIDS Virus" are incorrect and misleading. The person actually is "infected with HIV," a virus which eventually leads to the disease AIDS in a high percentage of those who are infected. Some call this "HIV-challenged" to emphasize a more positive approach for persons who are struggling to live normal lives in the face of HIV infection.

To further clarify this, the President's Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic stated, "The term AIDS is obsolete. "HIV Infection" more correctly defines the problem. The medical, public health, political, and community leadership must focus on the full course of HIV infection rather than concentrating on later stages of the disease (ARC and AIDS). Continual focus on AIDS rather than the entire spectrum of HIV disease has left our nation unable to deal adequately with the epidemic." (2)

People with AIDS vs. AIDS Victims

Those who have the disease AIDS generally find it more empowering to be called a "Person with AIDS" than an "AIDS victim." According to the dictionary, the term "victim" has many definitions some of which include, "one who is acted on and usually adversely affected by a force or agent" or "one that is injured, destroyed, or sacrificed under any of various conditions," or "one that is subjected to oppression, hardship, or mistreatment." (3) These definitions are certainly not empowering to people with AIDS. People suffering from other diseases are not identified as victims. (4) For example, persons with cancer have started a group called "cancervive" which emphasizes survival rather than death. Most people who are HIV-challenged would prefer to have a positive outlook and not to be labeled as victims.

Risk Groups vs. Risk Behaviors

This nomenclature implies that a certain demographic trait determines who will become infected with HIV. (4) It is not the group one belongs to, but the behaviors one practices that puts them at risk for HIV infection. The concept of high-risk groups has led many persons to falsely believe that they are not susceptible to HIV infection since they do not fall into one of these "groups."

This concept also has led to unwarranted discrimination against members of these groups. For example, Haitians were first labeled as a "risk group." Later it was found that it was not the fact they were Haitian that led to infection with HIV, but rather behaviors that put them at risk. Homosexuals also have been affected by "risk group" classification since many persons incorrectly perceive AIDS to be a "gay disease." It is not the fact they are homosexuals, but that they have practiced unsafe behaviors which has led to HIV infection. …