To tell or not to tell: negotiating disclosure for people living with HIV on antiretroviral treatment in a South African setting

Pride Linda
SAHARA J: Journal of Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS Research Alliance 2013, 10: S17-27
Disclosure of HIV status occurs for a variety of reasons and in various contexts, such as to sexual partners to enable safer sexual choices, to health-care workers to access treatment and care services and to family and community members to gain various forms of support. The reasons for disclosure or non-disclosure are shaped by the relationships, needs and circumstances of people living with HIV (PLHIV) at the time of disclosure. The purpose of this study was to investigate and describe the act and experience of disclosure in order to understand how these experiences of disclosure impact on the lives of PLHIV on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment and influence adherence to treatment. Using a qualitative research design, I conducted an ethnographic study at and through the referral clinic at the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. Ninety-three adult patients (75 women) participated in the study, 32 of whom were visited at home to conduct semi-structured in-depth interviews, and 61 of them participated in a cross-sectional study at the referral clinic using researcher-administered questionnaires. A general inductive approach was used to analyse the data. Participants in both arms of the study disclosed mainly to family members, then partners and then to friends and other persons; only five had not disclosed to anyone at all. In deciding to disclose or not, the author began to see how patients negotiated their disclosure. From weighing up other people's reactions, to being concerned about the effect of their disclosure on their disclosure targets, to concealing one's status to evade untoward negative reactions towards themselves. Further, negotiating one's disclosure is not only about to whom or how to disclose, it also means finding good opportunities to disclose or conceiving ways of hiding one's status and/or medication from others in order to enhance access and adherence to their ARV treatment. Perceived rather than actual stigma played an important role in decisions not to disclose. Nonetheless, HIV remains a highly stigmatising disease. The author suggests that both the gains in support and the evasion of negative reactions from the disclosure will continue to drive negotiation of disclosure of one's status in order for patients to access and remain adherent to their treatment. Thus, areas of disclosure and concealment as they influence one's adherence to treatment need to be investigated further to facilitate adherence to treatment.

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