Open Access Open Badges Research article

Disentangling the stigma of HIV/AIDS from the stigmas of drugs use, commercial sex and commercial blood donation – a factorial survey of medical students in China

Kit Yee Chan1*, Yi Yang2, Kong-Lai Zhang3 and Daniel D Reidpath4

Author Affiliations

1 School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University, Burwood Highway, Burwood, Victoria 3125, Australia

2 Department of Epidemiology, Guangdong College of Pharmacy, Guandong Province 510224, China

3 Peking Union Medical College, 5 Dong Dan San Tiao, Beijing 100005, China

4 Centre for Public Health ResearchBrunel University, Uxbridge, Middlesex, UB8 3PH, UK

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BMC Public Health 2007, 7:280  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-280

Published: 5 October 2007



HIV/AIDS related stigma interferes with the provision of appropriate care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Currently, programs to address the stigma approach it as if it occurs in isolation, separate from the co-stigmas related to the various modes of disease transmission including injection drug use (IDU) and commercial sex (CS). In order to develop better programs to address HIV/AIDS related stigma, the inter-relationship (or 'layering') between HIV/AIDS stigma and the co-stigmas needs to be better understood. This paper describes an experimental study for disentangling the layering of HIV/AIDS related stigmas.


The study used a factorial survey design. 352 medical students from Guangzhou were presented with four random vignettes each describing a hypothetical male. The vignettes were identical except for the presence of a disease diagnosis (AIDS, leukaemia, or no disease) and a co-characteristic (IDU, CS, commercial blood donation (CBD), blood transfusion or no co-characteristic). After reading each vignette, participants completed a measure of social distance that assessed the level of stigmatising attitudes.


Bivariate and multivariable analyses revealed statistically significant levels of stigma associated with AIDS, IDU, CS and CBD. The layering of stigma was explored using a recently developed technique. Strong interactions between the stigmas of AIDS and the co-characteristics were also found. AIDS was significantly less stigmatising than IDU or CS. Critically, the stigma of AIDS in combination with either the stigmas of IDU or CS was significantly less than the stigma of IDU alone or CS alone.


The findings pose several surprising challenges to conventional beliefs about HIV/AIDS related stigma and stigma interventions that have focused exclusively on the disease stigma. Contrary to the belief that having a co-stigma would add to the intensity of stigma attached to people with HIV/AIDS, the findings indicate the presence of an illness might have a moderating effect on the stigma of certain co-characteristics like IDU. The strong interdependence between the stigmas of HIV/AIDS and the co-stigmas of IDU and CS suggest that reducing the co-stigmas should be an integral part of HIV/AIDS stigma intervention within this context.