WASHINGTON -- Since the day Lisa Muschette was born 24 years ago, she has lived with a personal secret, one considered so dark by society that even she didn’t know about it until age 10.
Her mother knew.
Her father knew.
But Lisa’s secret was so taboo that they did not dare to whisper it to others, not even to Lisa, if only to spare her what they felt was the shame she would one day bear.
Still, Lisa, who grew up in Washington, D.C., knew something was wrong. She knew she was different, the recurring sicknesses, the frequent hospital visits.
It was after watching the movie version of Sarafina II in 1996 and viewing its story about something called AIDS and HIV that she turned to her mother and asked, “Do I have HIV?”
It was a child’s stab in the dark, but her mother, a drug user who had given Lisa the disease at birth, burst into tears. And from that day to now, Lisa’s life has been colored by the thing she cannot mention publicly without strange questions, confusion, sometimes derision and often revulsion
She has HIV.
It is the secret that millions of people across America and the world carry, a stigma that clinicians worldwide say fuels the spread of the disease. That stigma, the societal burden associated with AIDS, is in some ways even more damning than the disease itself, they say.
Consequently, hundreds of HIV/AIDS clinicians, scientists, psychologists, religious leaders, elected officials and workers from countries across the globe are gathering Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, at Howard University for a free, daylong international conference on the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS in Cramton Auditorium.
The “International Conference on HIV-Related Stigma: The Attitude that Spreads HIV,” hosted by Howard University Hospital, Howard University Health Sciences, and the Coalition to Eliminate AIDS-related Stigma will feature some of the world’s top HIV/AIDS experts and activists, including Dr. Sohail Rana, an HIV/AIDS specialist with Department of Pediatrics, Howard University College of Medicine and Howard University Hospital; U.S. Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and Laurie J. Bauman, Ph.D., director of the Preventive Intervention Research Center in the Department of Pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Other panelists include Willo Pequegnat, Ph.D., of the National Institute of Mental Health, co-author of Working with Families in the Era of HIV/AIDS and co-editor of Community Interventions and AIDS, Pernessa C. Seele, founder and CEO of The Balm In Gilead, Inc., a not-for-profit organization that tackles diseases, including HIV/AIDS, and Dr. Suniti Solomon, founder-director of the Y.R. Gaitonde Center for AIDS Research and Education in Chennai, India,
Also on panels are Dr. Rafael Mazin, regional advisor for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Comprehensive Care for the Pan American Health Organization; Reggie Smith of the Atlanta organization Wellness, Awareness and Recovery, and Li Li, Ph.D., director of research management at UCLA Semel Institute Center for Community Health.
Workshop panels include “Faith, Spirituality, and HIV: Barriers and Facilitators to HIV Prevention and How To Implement Interventions in Your Institution,” “HIV Stigma: Effect on Children, Youth, and Families Facilitator,” “Youth Roundtable on HIV and Stigma,” and “Criminalization of HIV, “Reducing the Stigma of HIV & STD Testing in Healthcare Settings.”
Miss America, Caressa Cameron, will also be attending the convention, as well representatives from the National Association for People with AIDS.