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Aids: Massaging the Message of Hope

Medical and social scientists have described AIDS as a disease that ravages every aspect of people's lives, from the most intimate to the most public. They also pontificate that HIV/AIDS threatens to wipe out development gains in the world's poorer nations, as measured by life expectancy. South Africa's Health Minister says HIV/AIDS is threatening reversal of post-apartheid developmental gains. There is now widespread agreement that a key step in addressing the HIV epidemic is to get local people collectively to 'take ownership' of the problem, and the task of understanding the transmission and prevention of HIV is one that involves attention to a range of academic disciplines and level of analysis.

Mass Communication analysts have argued that mass media like newspapers and television have a wide-ranging influence over our experience and over public opinion. This is not just because they affect our attitude in specific ways, but because they are the means of access to the knowledge on which many social activities depend.

However in a recent study (2010) of three South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) TV shows and three advertising campaigns that were studied for their impact on people's health choices, the results aren't encouraging. The study - by Johns Hopkins Health and Education and its partners, studied the impact of TV shows and advertising campaigns on HIV/AIDS awareness. The Hopkins study reveals as much as it conceals the power of the mass media, and the extent to which it may assist in enhancing healthy lifestyle choices. The reality is that 77% of studied informants have not been exposed to the government primary campaign Khomanani, and 50% of those not exposed did not know that regular condoms use prevents HIV nor did they take an HIV test.

Clearly, the target is being missed, as the latest South African HIV prevalence figures tell the story. Statistics by the Department of Health show that in 2009, the HIV prevalence in the adult population (aged 15-49) was estimated at 17.8%; or 5.63 million adults and children were infected with HIV and AIDS. Of these, 5.3 million were adults aged 15 years and older, 3.3 million were females and 334000 were children. The key question is - why there is no discernable behavioural change despite the proliferations of these messages among the targeted groups?

I want to argue that the current methods of AIDS communication are merely information provisioning, hence limited success; whereas, we need to advance towards AIDS communication: interlinking traditional marketing communication mix, and stakeholder management. The rationale of stakeholder collaboration in the context of AIDS communication is that 'stakeholder partnerships offer the possibility for the evolution of an in-depth understanding of the way in which the epidemic is spreading in particular local contexts, which ideally has the potential to lead to the development of informed attempts to reshape these contexts in such a way that might limit its spread '.

I hold forth a view that in rare cases wherein information providers move beyond information provision: they merely glamouralise HIV/AIDS communication messages. The case in point is the HIV positive character in one of South Africa's soap operas and Love Life campaign's billboards with healthy looking teenagers proclaiming a future without HIV. We are yet to bury a celebrity on local soap operas that died as a result of AIDS. We are yet to see a character on local soap operas buying or using condoms during many implied sexual encounters on-screen or a Love Life billboard displaying a critically ill person. Yet, the spread of HIV is, for the most part, caused by having unprotected sex, (the risk increasing exponentially) with multiple partners - this remains the greatest risk factor for HIV in this region (sub-Saharan).

It is suggested that the subtext of these two AIDS campaigns mentioned here apart from adding glamour to AIDS messaging - they seem to suggest: either that it's cool to be HIV positive or that a solution lies in a distant future. We need to go back to basics - at the core of AIDS communication should be the demonstration of the virus dire consequences i.e. illness as a result of HIV opportunistic diseases, death and dire consequences for those left behind. Only then we can move towards the ABC of AIDS which emphasis abstinence and condom usage, and on the other end of the scale - access to Antiretroviral Therapy (ART).

Compounding the problem is the media frenzy around celebrities (and would-be celebrities) after having publicly declared their status. None of these narratives (HIV public declarations) ever venture into the murky world of exactly how the virus was acquired, under what circumstances was the test done, and how many potential people might have been infected. Not a single person who ever disclosed his positive HIV status was ever asked about his partner/s state of mind, HIV status and how they plan to live a different life in-order to avoid, a) spreading the virus further, b) avoiding re-infection. I move for a paradigm shift in AIDS reporting in the media and a more nuanced approach to the communication/media ethics of AIDS reporting.

I conclude that the present HIV/AIDS messages are muted, often missing the target and hence they subsequently fail. I use the word muted to suggest that incorrect communication tactics, graphics, presentation, language use, frequency, medium and distribution channels, among others have been employed in the HIV/AIDS messaging. There is therefore justification in my thesis that this 'persuasive' discipline of mass media has not been deployed and exploited to its fullest potential in a battle against HIV/AIDS.

While medical professionals disperse Antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), it is time for a multidisciplinary approach to scale up AIDS communication that will lead to tangible health enhancing lifestyle. AIDS messages should be not confined to special shows or advertisements such as Soul City, Scrutinise, Brothers for life, Siyanqoba Beat it, and Khomanani - AIDS communication should permeate all our everyday life in ways that we can't escape.