Dimensions of HIV-related stigma in rural communities in Kenya and Uganda at the start of a large HIV 'test and treat' trial

PLoS One. 2021 May 17;16(5):e0249462. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0249462. eCollection 2021.


HIV-related stigma is a frequently cited barrier to HIV testing and care engagement. A nuanced understanding of HIV-related stigma is critical for developing stigma-reduction interventions to optimize HIV-related outcomes. This qualitative study documented HIV-related stigma across eight communities in east Africa during the baseline year of a large HIV test-and-treat trial (SEARCH, NCT: 01864603), prior to implementation of widespread community HIV testing campaigns and efforts to link individuals with HIV to care and treatment. Findings revealed experiences of enacted, internalized and anticipated stigma that were highly gendered, and more pronounced in communities with lower HIV prevalence; women, overwhelmingly, both held and were targets of stigmatizing attitudes about HIV. Past experiences with enacted stigma included acts of segregation, verbal discrimination, physical violence, humiliation and rejection. Narratives among women, in particular, revealed acute internalized stigma including feelings of worthlessness, shame, embarrassment, and these resulted in anxiety and depression, including suicidality among a small number of women. Anticipated stigma included fears of marital dissolution, verbal and physical abuse, gossip and public ridicule. Anticipated stigma was especially salient for women who held internalized stigma and who had experienced enacted stigma from their partners. Anticipated stigma led to care avoidance, care-seeking at remote facilities, and hiding of HIV medications. Interventions aimed at reducing individual and community-level forms of stigma may be needed to improve the lives of PLHIV and fully realize the promise of test-and-treat strategies.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Anti-Retroviral Agents / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / diagnosis*
  • HIV Infections / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Kenya
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care
  • Rural Population
  • Stereotyping*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Uganda
  • Young Adult


  • Anti-Retroviral Agents