HIV: The slow battle against stigma and misunderstanding

Rob blogs about the challenges facing HIV patients in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.


Worlds AIDS day (1st December) is fast approaching and with it we have a number of activities planned here in the South Kivu province of DRC.

In this part of the world public understanding of the disease is minimal and stigmatisation is a huge. Many diseases caused by bacteria and viruses are seen to be the work of magic or poisoning and HIV is no exception.

The first port of call for most people when they fall sick is the traditional healer or the prayer room. Both warn against the dangers of western medicine and urge people to stop taking the hospitals drugs. The effect of this is very damaging and we often see HIV patients arriving in a terrible state having abandoned their treatment for these alternative healings.

MSF Doctors Without Borders DRC

(A community health worker takes on the role of the traditional healer in a play warning of the dangers of traditional medicine)

Stigmatisation here is the worst I have worked with, but living with HIV anywhere in the world is difficult.

Taking a taxi in Amsterdam, while attending my mission briefings, my driver made it clear that he believed getting HIV meant certain death.It’s not the 90s anymore and this is no longer the case.

Modern treatment means that people living with this infection, while they cannot be cured, can live a long, healthy life and have a family without infecting them. If this is still poorly understood in the west, then imagine the understanding here, deep in Eastern DRC.

MSF Doctors Without Borders DRC

(A local theatre group put on a dance during a sensitisation event)

Here, most people are too afraid even to tell their partners of their status for fear of rejection.

Of course the partners are likely positive themselves and may be the source of the infection. Often when people do disclose, families are broken apart and human beings are marginalised. 

MSF Doctors Without Borders DRC

(Dr. Thierry speaks to school children about HIV)

And it is in that context that we approach World AIDS day with a number of events aimed at improving public knowledge over the next month.

Our teams are visiting schools, putting on theatre productions, speaking on local radio and, most excitingly, we will be hearing public testimony from people living with HIV.

Three of our patients have volunteered to speak out about their disease, to share their story with their community.

This has never been done before here and the courage involved is huge. Each has their own story which they have consented to be published on this blog and in the coming weeks I will share these with you.