Background: In Ethiopia, stigmatising attitudes towards people living with HIV have reduced over time. This is mainly due to improved HIV knowledge and the expansion of access to HIV care and support services. However, HIV stigma and discrimination remain a key challenge and have negative impacts on access to and utilisation of HIV services including nutritional programs in the HIV care setting. A small number of studies have examined the experience of stigma related to nutritional programs, but this is limited. This study explored HIV status disclosure and experience of stigma related to a nutritional program in HIV care settings in Ethiopia and impacts on nutritional program utilisation.
Methods: As part of a larger study, qualitative in-depth interviews were conducted with 20 adults living with HIV, 15 caregivers of children living with HIV and 13 program staff working in the nutritional program in three hospitals in the Tigray region of Northern Ethiopia. Framework thematic analysis was employed to analyse the data and NVivo 11 was used to analyse the qualitative interview data. This study is presented based on the consolidated criteria for reporting of qualitative research
Results: The study found varying levels of positive HIV status disclosure, depending on who the target of disclosure was. Disclosing to family members was reported to be less problematic by most participants. Despite reported benefits of the nutritional program in terms of improving weight and overall health status, adults and caregivers of children living with HIV revealed experiences of stigma and discrimination that were amplified by enrolment to the nutritional program and concerns about unwanted disclosure of positive HIV status. This was due to: a) transporting, consuming and disposing of the nutritional support (Plumpynut/sup) itself, which is associated with HIV in the broader community; b) required increased frequency of visits to HIV services for those enrolled in the nutritional program and associated greater likelihood of being seen there.
Conclusion: There was evidence of concerns about HIV-related stigma and discrimination among individuals enrolled in this program and their family members, which in turn negatively affected the utilisation of the nutritional program and the HIV service more broadly. Stigma and discrimination are a source of health inequity and undermine access to the nutritional program and other HIV services. Nutritional programs in HIV care should include strategies to take these concerns into account by mainstreaming stigma prevention and mitigation activities. Further research should be done to identify innovative ways of facilitating social inclusion to mitigate stigma and improve utilisation.