In the UK, there is still some stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, but it's nothing like the scale we see in other parts of the world. HelpAge International, noting an increase in HIV infection amongst older heterosexual couples in sub-Saharan Africa, draws our attention to what that stigma can mean:
In Tanzania, older women are accused of witchcraft if a member of their family has HIV. These women are ostracised from their communities and subjected to violence and even death.
Superstition still plays a part in shaping people's attitudes to the condition, and has provided some novel preventatives and "cures". In her entry to the The Guardian International Development Journalism Competition, Kirsty Taylor looked at the situation in Kenya:
I went to very many herbalists to try and find a cure, but they didn't know what was wrong with me,[Damaris Cagina] explains.They told me my mother-in-law had bewitched me. They told me to buy special fabric - a white cloth with red stripes - and to put soil in a basket to stop the spell. I tried it all but nothing helped. It was only after very many visits to herbalists that I decided to come to hospital.
Cagina is one of the estimated 1.4 million people living with HIV/Aids in Kenya today. But like many of them, she first refused tests to discover her status, viewing a positive result as an immediate death sentence and spiritual curse.
The role of religion in promoting superstition, stigmatising people with HIV/AIDS and getting in the way of preventative efforts is well-known, and doesn't just affect Africa. Even in the relatively godless UK, it's regarded as a problem.
Religions are often credited as the means by which moral values, such as care for others, are reinforced and passed on.
But some charities and anti-HIV groups claim religion is helping to breed the very stigma that the UN says has helped give the UK twice as many new cases of infection each year as any other country in western Europe....
In denouncing the behaviour that allows the virus to spread, religious leaders sometimes drive HIV-positive people underground.
That same story contains an interesting profile of an HIV-positive imam, originally from the Ivory Coast, but now resident in the UK, and afraid to let his family know of his condition because he would be ostracised. Another African Muslim explained the problem from his point of view:
Along with a conservative African culture, religion has played a significant role in creating this taboo. Ismael is 40 and originally from Sudan.
The imams don't talk too much about it, but they start off by saying 'this is a taboo, this is a sin, a punishment from Allah'.
"When you disclose it, straight away they think you are gay, or maybe you got it from a prostitute or you did something bad and Allah is punishing you. That is why it has to be kept secret.
Over in Indonesia, we see a fine example of exactly that problem:
The image of a giant condom draped in Indonesia's national red and white colors towered over the opening ceremonies of National Condom Week in Jakarta. To coincide with World AIDS Day, the National AIDS Commission crafted the message,Use Condoms, Celebrate Life.But some hardline religious groups don't believe condom use should be promoted, let alone celebrated.
The Islamic group Hizbut Tahrir held banners during a demonstration on Sunday aimed at urging the government to end programs that provide free condoms to male and female sex workers, based on the argument that condoms encourage sex outside of marriage.
Because humans always need to be encouraged to have sex, right?
Rise in HIV and AIDS cases among older Africans—HelpAge International, 1st December 2009; Truth is the first casualty—The Guardian, 25th November 2009; Imam aims to break Aids taboo—BBC News, 1st December 2009; Condom friction in pious Indonesia—Asia Times, 1st December 2009.