HIV-associated stigma may impede HIV medication adherence among people living with HIV

The association of HIV-related stigma to HIV medication adherence: a systematic review and synthesis of the literature.

Sweeney SM, Vanable PA. AIDS Behav. 2015 Aug 25. [Epub ahead of print]

This paper provides a review of the quantitative literature on HIV-related stigma and medication adherence, including: (1) synthesis of the empirical evidence linking stigma to adherence, (2) examination of proposed causal mechanisms of the stigma and adherence relationship, and (3) methodological critique and guidance for future research. We reviewed 38 studies reporting either cross-sectional or prospective analyses of the association of HIV-related stigma to medication adherence since the introduction of antiretroviral therapies (ART). Although there is substantial empirical evidence linking stigma to adherence difficulties, few studies provided data on psychosocial mechanisms that may account for this relationship. Proposed mechanisms include: (a) enhanced vulnerability to mental health difficulties, (b) reduction in self-efficacy, and (c) concerns about inadvertent disclosure of HIV status. Future research should strive to assess the multiple domains of stigma, use standardized measures of adherence, and include prospective analyses to test mediating variables.

Abstract access 

Editor’s notes: People living with HIV often experience stigma and discrimination including social isolation and negative stereotyping. Recent evidence suggests that stigma may influence adherence to HIV medication among people living with HIV. This paper presents findings from a systematic review of the evidence on the impact of HIV-associated stigma on HIV medication adherence. The authors identified 38 studies which quantitatively assessed the association between stigma and medication adherence. All studies found evidence indicating that stigma contributed to adherence difficulties among people living with HIV. Included studies looked at diverse patient populations sampled from different countries and contexts. While stigma is heavily influenced by the socio-cultural context, the association between stigma and adherence across diverse contexts indicates that there may be commonalities in what causes stigma and how this relates to adherence.

The authors of this review suggest three possible causal mechanisms of HIV-associated stigma and medication adherence: (1) There may be links between stigma and depressive symptoms, and between depressive symptoms and adherence. Internalized stigma may enhance vulnerability to depressive symptoms, and this may influence adherence to HIV medication. (2) Stigma may cause reductions in self-efficacy – a person’s judgment of his or her ability to organize and execute behaviours - which may influence medication adherence. (3) People may fear HIV status disclosure by being seen taking HIV medication. Fear of status disclosure, and associated stigma, may cause people to avoid taking HIV medication.

The studies included in this review indicate a clear link between HIV-associated stigma and HIV medication adherence. There may be commonalities in what causes stigma across multiple populations. Future research should assess the influence of multiple forms of stigma on adherence, and on testing causal mechanisms between stigma and adherence. 

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