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By Michelle Scott Okabayashi

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November 15, 2012—The 2012 UNAIDS report reveals great strides in the battle to stop the spread of HIV and AIDS. More people than ever have access to antiretroviral therapies—even in impoverished countries. People are living longer with HIV and AIDS, and the number of new infections has decreased by 20 percent in the last decade.

These are all impressive gains in this preventable, yet deadly disease. However, the same report shows that the stigma that haunts people living with HIV and AIDS continues. Some 46 countries and territories have restrictions on the movement of people who have HIV and AIDS.

Stigma is very much alive in many places in the world. Joe Samalenge is an UMCOR Health intern from Drew University and is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). He has witnessed stigma’s devastating effects firsthand.

Samalenge recalls a neighborhood where he grew up in Likasi in southeastern DRC that, after several community members died from HIV and AIDS, became known as “the HIV suburb.” People were warned not to visit this community for fear of infection. Samalenge recalls that the “entire community was stigmatized and they lost most of their friends; young girls lost their chances of getting married, and they generally lost their human dignity in that area.”

Samalenge also recalls the fate of a Christian woman he knew. She was a successful businesswoman who also married and had children. Her life seemed to be going well, when her husband became ill and died. At his funeral a rumor began that he died from AIDS. By the end of the traditional three-day funeral, the widow’s reputation was ruined. She lost her close relationship with her pastor, her church community, and her business partner. She told Samalenge, “Everybody has rejected me, including my own parents, my pastor, my church brothers and sisters, my business partners, and God. God has punished me for my husband’s sin.”

“Stigma is one of the most significant roadblocks we face as we work toward an AIDS-free world,” says Patricia Magyar member of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund (UMGAF) committee and UMCOR Health executive. “It prevents people from seeking help and it stands in the way of education, which is the key to prevention.”

The United Methodist Global AIDS Fund raises support for programs around the world that provide HIV/AIDS education, prevention, treatment, and care. Since its inception in 2004, UMGAF has raised more than $3 million and provided grants to 200 different projects in 38 countries.

With World AIDS Day on December 1, consider how you can help put an end to the stigma that people living with HIV and AIDS face in the United States and around the world. Your gifts to the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund, UMCOR Advance #982345, support programs that overcome stigma and give real help to people living with HIV and AIDS and their loved ones.

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