Introduction: HIV-related stigma hampers treatment and prevention efforts worldwide. Effective interventions to counter HIV-related stigma are greatly needed. Although the “contact hypothesis” suggests that personal contact with persons living with HIV (PLHIV) may reduce stigmatizing attitudes in the general population, empirical evidence in support of this hypothesis is lacking. Our aim was to estimate the association between personal contact with PLHIV and HIV-related stigma among the general population of sub-Saharan Africa.
Methods: Social distance and anticipated stigma were operationalized using standard HIV-related stigma questions contained in the Demographic and Health Surveys and AIDS Indicator Surveys of 26 African countries between 2003 and 2008. We fitted multivariable logistic regression models with country-level fixed effects, specifying social distance as the dependent variable and personal contact with PLHIV as the primary explanatory variable of interest.
Results: We analyzed data from 206,717 women and 91,549 men living in 26 sub-Saharan African countries. We estimated a statistically significant negative association between personal contact with PLHIV and desires for social distance (adjusted odds ratio [AOR] = 0.80; p < 0.001; 95% Confidence Interval [CI], 0.73–0.88). In a sensitivity analysis, a similar finding was obtained with a model that used a community-level variable for personal contact with PLHIV (AOR = 0.92; p < 0.001; 95% CI, 0.89–0.95).
Conclusions: Personal contact with PLHIV was associated with reduced desires for social distance among the general population of sub-Saharan Africa. More contact interventions should be developed and tested to reduce the stigma of HIV.