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Story | Community
2 January 2020

Breaking down the walls that stigma builds


Qatar Foundation believes in the power of discourse and open-mindedness – an ethos which has helped medical students play their part in raising awareness about HIV and AIDS.

From awkward silences and stilted conversations to negativity, distrust, and marginalization – the stigma, myths, and misinformation that continue to surround HIV and AIDS mean these reactions remain common across global society.

In many parts of the world, including the Middle East, HIV and AIDS are often seen as a taboo; a topic that simply shouldn’t be talked about. But as an open hub for dialogue, discourse, and confronting the most important issues our world faces, that isn’t the case within Qatar Foundation (QF) – as a group of medical students from Qatar have found as they bid to break down barriers of fear and ignorance that risk hindering efforts to combat the condition.

SCORA (the Standing Committee of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights including HIV and AIDS) is one of the committees under the Qatar Medical Students’ Association, which comprises future physicians from universities across the country. One of its key aims is to raise awareness of, and educate people about, the realities of HIV and AIDS. And, starting with World AIDS Day in December, the group launched a concerted effort to help strip away some of the stigma surrounding it.

A social media campaign focused on bringing HIV and AIDS information to the attention of the wider public, alongside poetry, photography, drawings, and perspectives related to the condition by students at QF partner university Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q), Qatar University, and the University of Calgary in Qatar. And the campaign concluded with a special event at WCM-Q where the students bolstered their own HIV and AIDS knowledge and training, including hearing – by video – stories of patients who have battled both the condition and the public perception that envelopes it.

“Society tends to try to disregard the things it doesn’t particularly want to talk about,” explains Abdallah Tom, President of QMSA and a third-year medical student at WCM-Q. “But not talking about something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

“What we are trying to achieve is to shed light on issues that we face, as a community – whether it’s sexual and reproductive health, or a mental health awareness campaign we are working on. These are topics that many within a community can choose to ignore, which in turn ends up stigmatizing people who are suffering, propagating a cycle and making it much worse.

“Our aim is to help break that cycle – removing the stigma by normalizing people talking about these topics.”

Around 30 QMSA students attended the HIV/AIDS event at QF, wearing red in support of those with the condition and forming themselves into the shape of the HIV/AIDS ribbon for a symbolic photograph, while also voting for the winning entries in the art competition, Beyond Positive, held to mark World AIDS Day.

“We are determined to help people become more aware of HIV and AIDS and change the mindset that many within our society have toward those with the condition,” said Mashael Al Siddiqui, a first-year student at Qatar University’s College of Medicine.

“HIV and AIDS cannot and should not be viewed the same way they were 30 years ago. It’s something that we have to face and educate people about. Hiding away from it is not the solution, and as medical students, I do feel we have a responsibility to raise people’s awareness of it. It’s sad when there is an attitude of ‘let’s not talk about this’ because it’s felt that people will judge – opposing discussion of a topic doesn’t make it go away, and avoiding a problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be tackled.

“Today’s world should be more open and empathetic toward others. And when we have opportunities to openly discuss these topics, such as this one at QF, we feel empowered. We’ve never felt people are looking at us and asking ‘why are you talking about this?’ I think this shows that, just as medicine is changing, so culture is changing, and through campaigns such as this we can hopefully contribute to building a truly open society.”

Fifth-year Qatar University medical student Ghada Abdelaziz, who is SCORA’s national officer, agrees, saying: “Having Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar and Qatar Foundation support us through recognizing the importance of this event is very important in terms of providing opportunities to raise awareness and education, which we can hopefully build on to reach wider audiences and achieve greater goals.

“HIV and AIDS are often not widely spoken about in society because of the stigma that surrounds them, and the danger is that this prevents people getting tested and receiving the support they need to live long and happy lives. As young people, we believe that if we can help to spread the right knowledge, we can help combat conditions such as this, regardless of whether they have a stigma attached.”

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The QF event also heard from Dr. Sara Salameh of Hamad Medical Corporation, who told the students about the importance of building a trust-based rapport with HIV/AIDS patients, helping them to accept their diagnosis and recognize the effectiveness of the treatments that are now available, and to be prepared to confide in others about their condition. “Stigma comes from a lack of knowledge, and education about HIV/AIDS is the priority,” she told the students.

“What you are doing is really important, and I hope that its next step will be to reach a wider audience.”

Tom is optimistic that the campaign can alter mindsets and open eyes. “We have made great strides within the healthcare community, but we need to go further,” he says.

“We have received a lot of support from medical students across the region, as well as here within WCM-Q and QF. It shows we are engaging people, getting a conversation going, and creating a safe space where people can freely talk about this topic. We want to normalize talking about issues such as this before stigma takes hold, and we’re very happy to be in place where such important dialogue can be opened up. It’s empowering to see the support we have received for this campaign.

“Our generation does not simply accept boundaries that have been set by society in the past, which is why we are working toward breaking them down. And we don’t see the need to wait until we have graduated to do this, when we can do something right now and bring our drive and enthusiasm to the task of creating change.”

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