Getting the message right Editorial
Stabroek News
September 23, 2002

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In the September 7 edition of Stabroek News, a letter writer, Sohan Jaikaran criticised some of the current HIV/AIDS ads for misplaced focus and for inferences that could end up doing more harm. He referred specifically to one of those overused wedding scenes where the priest asks for anyone knowing of a reason why the couple should not be married to come forward. Expectedly, a woman rises with the declaration that neither of the two has taken an HIV test - "none a dem", she emphatically put it. The couple then decides to put off the happy day until they have taken the test.

The inference to be drawn from this situation is that before a couple embarks on marriage they should be sure that neither of the two has the HIV virus. That, of course, is only a fragment of what should be a comprehensive campaign targeting youths from pre-teen years and all other persons who are oblivious to the dangers of HIV/AIDS. As Mr Jaikaran points out, the conclusion to be drawn from the marriage advertisement is that sexual activity outside of the institution of marriage is either not dangerous or doesn't warrant societal concern. The message is even more out of sync considering the growing number of non-traditional families where women are raising children out of wedlock, and many of these fathers seduce their way from one bed to the next with little concern for their obligations as parents, or the health of their sex partners or themselves.

The wedding advertisement was probably trying to make the point that couples entering relationships should commit to monogamy and therefore have themselves tested. It is a sound argument but the reality is different in and outside of marriage, and those composing these ads have to show a greater recognition of this even if it offends traditional religious and conservative values.

Getting the message right is critical in the face of the threat. At least 1 in 20 persons is HIV positive and this figure may be even higher based on recent pronouncements by health officials. The campaign must target all affected groups with effective messages through various media. It mustn't be squeamish about crafting ads or awareness campaigns for homosexuals or sex workers. In the main the ads focus on heterosexual sex.

The modes of transmission of the virus are well known: contact with the body fluids of an infected person through sexual intercourse, intravenous drug use with contaminated needles, and from mother to child.

How to get the message across in a clear way without being preachy is the challenge for those making these ads. Scaring persons with images of HIV/AIDS patients in extremis may have an impact but ends up drowning out the educative part of the ad. Some of the local ads have been thoughtful and effective but they need to be constantly updated so that they are still relevant.

When all is said and done, the basic message for the sexually active is that unprotected sex with people whose sexual history you don't know can be a death sentence. It is the sexual equivalent of Russian roulette. If you are going to have sex with a stranger ensure that you use a condom. The best way to avoid HIV is to commit to a monogamous relationship. Where this is not possible use condoms.

While it has been found that even persons who comprehend the dangers engage in risky sex, the only option is to mount a saturating education campaign and this must target pre-teens in schools. With this recognition in mind, the United Nations Foundation is to launch a global campaign next month under the theme `Apathy is lethal'.

Given the sensitivity of the subject and the need for a constant line, it is crucial that public health officials not do anything to confuse this. A recent statement by Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy came in for much scrutiny and criticism. He was reported as saying that patients on HIV drugs would have lower viral loads and therefore less capacity to transmit the virus through their bodily fluids. While that might be the case, his statement did not help the situation. An HIV infected person should not have unprotected sex in the first place. Even between infected partners it has been shown that a re-infection of a patient with HIV could have dire health consequences for that person. The treatment and care of a patient should be seen as an attempt to reduce viral loads to ensure that the person isn't overtaken by opportunistic infections, not to make them less infective. As the minister said, the HIV/AIDS crisis should not be used to score points and it is the responsibility of all, particularly the media, to clarify issues before printing or broadcasting.

Feedback is an important part of ad campaigns. The concerns raised over the wedding advertisement and the minister's statement should lead to a more finely tuned and effective campaign against HIV/AIDS.