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World Aids Day tackles discrimination

An Aids-infected father in a Chinese hospital awaits treatment

(Keystone)

It was World Aids Day on December 1. As on every other day this year, more than 8,000 people died of Aids and there were 14,000 new HIV infections.

Fighting discrimination is the focus of the 2002/2003 campaign. "You won't get Aids just by talking about it," is one message seen on posters across Switzerland.

Prejudice can take a variety of forms from Swiss insurance companies who refuse to cover sick pay for people with HIV/Aids, to countries which refuse entry to sufferers.

"Ignorance, misunderstanding and prejudice makes life difficult and favour the spread of the disease," said Ruth Rutman, director of the Swiss Aids Federation.

Stigma

According to UNAids, 42 million people are now living with HIV worldwide. Five million were newly infected in 2002 and 3.1 million people were killed by Aids this year.

"The impact of stigma can be as detrimental as the virus itself," said UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan in his World Aids Day message.

"Some people with Aids are being denied basic rights such as food or shelter, and dismissed from jobs they are perfectly fit to perform.

"They may be shunned by their community or by their own family. The fear of stigma leads to silence and when it comes to fighting Aids, silence is death."

Sick pay

Some Swiss insurance companies have refused to provide sick pay insurance to people with HIV. They have also tried to delay paying pensions to people forced to retire early and raised difficulties with invalidity insurance.

"The main difficulties are concerned with insurance," Caroline Suter of the Swiss Aids Federation, told swissinfo. "The other problem is with the protection of personal information.

"At work, the employer and the co-employees often become aware that someone is HIV-positive or has Aids and this gives rise to discrimination and the employer has no right to ask this question or get to know this information."

The Swiss Aids Federation has been working with the trade unions and employers to try to tackle these issues.

"We feel that people are not aware of the problem," Rutman told swissinfo. "Instead of fighting against the illness, they fight against the people who have that illness.

"We have to make sure that this changes not only in Switzerland but worldwide. In Switzerland we know where we can fight and where we can get results.

"We see it at the workplace, we see it in connection with insurance and we see it especially with data protection."

Visa denied

Nearly 100 countries around the world have restrictions on entry or length of stay for people who are HIV-positive. Some forbid entry altogether including Iraq and the United States.

Daniel Biedermann, director of the Swiss Red Cross, told swissinfo that discrimination can actually lead to the spread of Aids.

He said it created a climate in which it's difficult to talk about the disease and in which sexual partners risk transmitting HIV because they are afraid to reveal that they might be infected.

Biedermann said the Swiss Red Cross was participating in this year's campaign because the spread of Aids had a humanitarian dimension as well as a health and social one.

The international Aids day campaign, conceived by the advertising agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, can be seen on public transport in the larger Swiss cities.

Regional activities include concerts, theatre and street events.

swissinfo, Vincent Landon

Key facts

Five million people were newly infected with HIV in 2002.
There were 3.1million Aids-related deaths - that's over 8,000 a day.
42 million people were living with HIV/Aids at the end of 2002.
Some 20,000 people are living with HIV in Switzerland.
There have been 5,200 Aids-related deaths.

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