Opinion / Web Comments

Taking the fight against HIV discrimination to the classroom

By Renata Lok-Dessallien (chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2013-09-09 15:50

On Tuesday, Sept 10, there are many reasons to celebrate Teacher's Day. Teachers are vital to society and play a crucial role in creating a world that is both informed and inclusive. The role of teachers is much more than helping students to succeed at exams and transition smoothly into further study and work. Teachers also inspire their students to contribute to building a compassionate, fair society — a society that promotes reason and science over ignorance, fear and intolerance.

In a bold show of progressive policymaking, Guangdong province this month abolished restrictions preventing people living with HIV from being employed as teachers. The policy change, which came into force on Sept 1, represent a shift from previous regulations, which excluded people living with HIV from serving as teachers in the province.

With this important policy move, Guangdong is sending a message that discrimination against HIV-positive people is both unnecessary and harmful. As other provinces begin launching consultations on this matter, seeking input from experts, communities and the public, it is important we consider carefully the issues involved.

The United Nations believes that HIV-related restrictions which limit the rights of HIV-positive people to work are both unnecessary and harmful, both from a public health and a human rights and dignity perspective.

They are unnecessary because the risk of HIV transmission within a classroom is effectively zero. HIV can only be transmitted through sexual intercourse, transfusion of contaminated blood or from a mother to her child, making transmission within the classroom essentially impossible. The United Kingdom recently removed restrictions preventing people living with HIV from working as surgeons, dentists, nurses and midwives, deemed unnecessary thanks to the widespread application of universal precautions for healthcare workers in the UK. Announcing the policy shift, the UK's Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies said, "It is more likely that someone will be struck by lightning than be infected by HIV by their doctor or dentist." In the classroom environment, this is even more the case. There is therefore no reason, from a health and safety perspective, that people who are HIV-positive and keen to contribute to society through teaching should be shut out of the classroom.

A second key reason why these restrictions need to be removed is the pernicious role they play in propagating stigma and discrimination. Where people feel that their employment prospects may be limited by a positive HIV diagnosis, evidence shows that they are less likely to seek lifesaving testing and treatment, with serious negative consequences for their health and the health of their families.

Stigma and discrimination generate fear and denial, driving those living with, or at increased risk of contracting HIV, underground and away from services. Stigma and discrimination prevent behavioral changes. The ultimate result of stigma and discrimination, therefore, is that more people become infected with HIV. As such, stigma and discrimination constitute major obstacles to an effective response to HIV.

Putting an end to stigma and discrimination, and thereby creating a more open, tolerant society, is one of the core goals outlined in China's Five Year Action Plan for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control. Discrimination against people living with HIV in the context of teacher recruitment is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive and contributes to higher levels of stigma and discrimination, thus depriving people of their rights and human dignity with negative consequences for China's efforts to prevent and control HIV.

Protecting the rights of people living with HIV to serve as teachers, and live free from fear and discrimination, must be a priority for society as a whole.

The author is UN Resident Coordinator and UN Development Program Resident Representative in China Renata Lok-Dessallien.

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