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Red Cross, Red Crescent Launch Campaign to Fight Spread of AIDS - 2003-05-07

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is launching a global campaign to dispel the myths and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. It says stigma and misinformation help spread the disease and, consequently, cause more deaths.

Where HIV/AIDS is concerned, the message of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is that stigma kills, while the truth can save lives. The federation says the truth can be learned and it is mobilizing people through a global campaign to tell the truth about AIDS.

Red Cross HIV/AIDS coordinator Bernard Gardiner says that the disease is spreading because people put themselves at risk from infection and, to avoid being stigmatized, refuse treatment.

"We see the results of HIV graphically everyday," said Mr. Gardiner. "We see HIV-positive mothers who could stop breastfeeding to avoid transmitting the virus to their infant. But they do not do it because they cannot face the stigma from the village knowing that they are HIV positive. We see people avoiding being tested or not telling anybody after their diagnosis."

Mr. Gardiner argues that misconceptions still persist about how HIV/AIDS spreads. Some think, he says, that they can become infected by mosquito bites, by sharing the same toilet or even working in the same office with people who have HIV/AIDS.

In the vast majority of cases, AIDS is transmitted through unprotected sex with someone who is HIV positive or by sharing needles that have been used by people who have the disease.

According to Mr. Gardiner, the Red Cross advocates the use of condoms to limit the spread of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS and also seeks ways to stop the use of dirty needles by drug users.

Mr. Gardiner says the Red Cross campaign is modeled on one used by Uganda, which, by encouraging discussion about HIV/AIDS, helped limit the spread of the disease in the country.

"With the success story of the way Uganda has brought HIV under control there, that it was the face to face communication between people that really made the difference," he said. "Red Cross-Red Crescent has a tradition of mobilizing communities, household to household, door to door and it is at that level that we believe that we can turn the tide on stigma."

Mr. Gardiner says the massive threat posed by HIV/AIDS means it will not be easily pushed off the global health agenda by SARS or other concerns.

More than 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV and, over the past two decades, 25 million people have died of the disease.