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Fighting HIV/AIDS: Mass Media Strategies in South America

Global AidsStories about the global AIDS pandemic, and the impact that the disease is having in the developing world, are in the news seemingly everyday.

During the past quarter century, more than 60 million people have become infected with HIV worldwide, and 25 million have died.

In 2007 alone, an estimated 2.7 million people were newly infected.

  • Although this represents a decline from the 3 million infected in 2001, UNAIDS still describes the situation this way: “The global epidemic is stabilizing but at an unacceptably high level.”

AIDS is no longer thought of as a disease that just affects the gay community and drug users: Women now account for 50% of all HIV-infected folks worldwide.

Nor can be it viewed as only affecting sub-Saharan Africa on the global level.  In Latin America, for example, an estimated 140,000 individuals were newly infected in 2007, and roughly 60,000 died that year from the disease.

Despite the large number of individuals infected each year, money spent on HIV/AIDS typically goes to treatment, rather than prevention, programs.

  • In the last six years, the number of people receiving antiretroviral medicines in low and middle-income countries has increased ten fold, as many governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private foundations have stepped up support for distribution programs.
  • In comparison, just 10% of available HIV/AIDS funds are typically spent on prevention programming for at-risk populations in countries that have “concentrated” epidemics.

We don’t mean to say that treatment programs are not important.

  • Antiretroviral drugs are increasing the lifespan of infected individuals, which helps to:
  • Stabilize communities, lessen the economic burden of paying for care, and reduce the number of children orphaned by AIDS.

But as this UNAIDS report makes clear, greater emphasis on prevention programs is critical:   “The global HIV epidemic cannot be reversed, and gains in expanding treatment access cannot be sustained, without greater progress in reducing the rate of new HIV infections.”

According to the report: Young people (ages 15-24) account for 45% of all new HIV infections amongst adults, but less than 50% of young people surveyed in 64 countries had accurate information about how the disease is spread.

That’s why we’re excited about the recent launch of the first-ever Latin American Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS, which was started with the help of the U.N.-sponsored Global Media AIDS Initiative (GMAI).

HIV/AIDS educators have long recognized the unique power of the media to spread awareness, especially amongst young people, and to challenge cultural norms that contribute to the spread of the disease.   Now, media executives from Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico and Brazil have united to create regional public information campaigns and to provide journalism workshops to help others develop educational content about the disease.

These execs might learn something from PCI-Media Impact, an innovative, non-profit group that has developed several Entertainment-Education (E-E) media programs to teach folks about HIV/AIDs.  PCI-Media Impact was founded in 1958 and has created more than 242 media productions in 27 countries worldwide.   The organization works predominantly in Central and South America.

There, they produce telenovelas (like soap operas or sitcoms), radio programs and public service announcements (PSAs). These media programs have built-in messages about everything from HIV prevention and family planning to women’s rights and environmental sustainability.

The programs are wildly popularly, and even more important, effective.

The organization does its research before producing the shows, to make sure that the messages and characters will make sense and appeal to the target audience. They also work closely with, and train, local producers, to give the shows a more authentic feel.

The programs, which typically feature young people and their families, draw the audience in and encourage them to express their opinions about the choices that the characters make.   For example, a radio program that aired recently in Peru called Con el Viento Al Favor (With the Wind in My Sails) looks at two families side-by-side.

The first family comes across as perfect, with a hard-working father and devoted mother.  In reality, the father is racist and is secretly cheating on his wife.  Instead of speaking up, the wife overlooks the affair to avoid a scandal.  In addition, their son is struggling with his sexuality and their daughter is dating an abusive man.

The second family argues openly and appears to be rather chaotic.  But the family members love each other and are dealing well with several issues, including an uncle who has been diagnosed with HIV.

At the end of each segment, listeners are invited to call in.  Often times, callers speak freely about their own hopes and fears, and how they are also struggling with many of the same problems.

Through this creative, entertaining format, millions of South and Central Americans are learning more about how HIV/AIDS is transmitted, how to protect themselves, and about how to cope with the disease once a family member or friend is diagnosed.

Bravo to PCI-Media Impact for its creative use of media, and good luck to the Latin America Media Partnership on HIV/AIDS as it develops information campaigns.

Note: All statistics for this post were taken from this UNAIDS 2008 Executive Summary Report on the AIDS epidemic.

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